Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Dark is Rising

I had one major reading goal this year and that was to read The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. I never had. I know. It was this huge blight on my record. It is there no longer I have now read all five books. In one day. It was an interesting, but slightly disappointing experience. Yes. I said it. I was disappointed. Only slightly though. For the most part I enjoyed it. Especially books 2 and 4.

As I began reading book one I was delighted. I love a good sibling story and this was most definitely a good sibling story. Over Sea, Under Stone follows the adventures of the three Drew children Simon, Jane, and Barney during their summer holiday in Cornwall. They are staying an old house with their mysterious "great uncle". They find an old map while exploring the house that leads to an artifact from the days of King Arthur, but there are forces at work that want the artifact for their own nefarious purposes.  Exploring old houses. Mysterious relations. Treasure hunts. Sibling squabbling (with love). Arthurian legend. Fights between the forces of Light and Dark. All things I love, and love this book I did. The plot has plenty of action and the way the Drew parents were removed from the vicinity of their adventuring children was realistic.  (And nobody had to die.) This book I think is the most fun of the five. The stakes aren't quite as high as in the others, but they are high enough and the villains are menacing enough, to give it a slight edge of danger.

I was even more delighted with book two, The Dark is Rising. Taking place over the Christmas holidays, this book follows the adventures of a new character, Will Stanton. (We will talk more about Will. Oh yes we will.) And much to my delight he also has tons of siblings. And parents too. Although they are woefully oblivious to their youngest son's actions, but that is not their fault. Will is special. He is the seventh son of a seventh son and they are always going to attract trouble. He is an Old One charged with fighting the rising Dark for the forces of Light. He comes into his destiny on his 11th birthday. The book takes place over two short weeks and so much happens. The reader needs to be alert. Cooper is one of those authors who sends her readers off into her book with little explanation and expects them to keep up. Will is a character you will want to keep up with though and I thought Cooper did an excellent job capturing the contrast between his child self and his ageless self. The stakes in this book are higher. The forces of the Dark more menacing. The sense of urgency stronger. All those things definitely made me feel closer to Will.

Greenwitch is the shortest of the five books and probably the one I enjoyed the least. In this volume the Drew siblings are called upon to help the Light again and meet Will Stanton for the first time, much to their dismay. One can understand this as they were the heroes and now they find there is some kid their age running around with powers like their Uncle Merry. Even by the end of the book Jane is the only one who seems to have really warmed to him. I felt in many ways this was a rehashing of book one. Same setting. Similar quest. Far less perilous. The forces of the Dark are less active in this story than in the first one even. That may have been Cooper giving her audience a break before slamming them with book four. This is definitely a book meant to bridge the first half of the sequence with the second.

The Grey King won a Cooper a Newbery award and is definitely the most intense of the five books. Will is in Wales convalescing (supposedly) after a bout of hepatitis. While he was very sick he is also in Wales to begin the quest that brings to a head the battle raging between the Light and Dark. To do this he needs the assistance of a local boy named Bran, a boy who is not entirely normal himself. I have never been to Wales but after reading this book I feel like I have. Cooper's descriptions of the setting are vivid and depict a beautiful and eerie place, picturesque and deadly at the same time. I loved how she blended the modern and the ancient as well. With mentions of phones and Land Rovers there was always a reminder that this wasn't a story of a time long ago, but it is at the same time. In this volume the Arthurian element takes center stage and becomes the heart of the story. Again, there is a lot of adventure to be had and quite a lot going on. The Dark is as menacing and cruel as it has been yet. There is tragedy and heartache. I felt for Will quite a lot, but feel that was because I already liked him. I never really felt like I had a good enough knowledge of Bran's character. I think this is because of the plot centric story.The plot is really well done, paced perfectly and with a climax that is harrowing and satisfying. All of the secrets are revealed at the perfect times and places. It is not difficult to see how it came to win that Newbery.

If I hadn't been so impressed with book four would I have been as disappointed by book five? Would it have happened if I hadn't read them back to back? I think so, but it probably wouldn't have been as strong. The Silver Tree has all of our heroes coming together in Wales to gain the sword they need to fulfill the prophecy and come to the confrontation with the Dark. I couldn't help shaking the feeling there was more going on plotwise than was necessary. Like things were being dragged out for no real narrative purpose other than to not end it. This was really annoying and I was sad by how annoyed I was given that I had found the pacing and execution of the plot in the other books to be their greatest strength. I also felt that Cooper's authorial voice intruded in this story more than in the others. And the end. I am not going to say more than I was so irritated by it. So irritated. 

I would definitely recommend them to lovers of high fantasy and Arthurian legend. If like me you haven't read them yet for whatever reason, you definitely should. Maybe not all in the same day. Overall I really enjoyed the experience. It is an adventurous and perilous tale of good versus evil, and the evil is most soundly trounced. That is always a good thing.


  1. Great review! yes--you're right--maybe reading them all in the same day set you up for more disappointment? I don't know. I read them over the course of a few weeks/months and just remember enjoying the series--especially the same ones you did.

    1. It was really the way it ended. When I was in the midst of it I was loving it.