Monday, September 13, 2010

The Dark Is Rising

The Dark Is Rising Cycle
by Susan Cooper
Consisting of: Over Seal, Under Stone; The Dark Is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; and Silver on the Tree
Newbery Honor 1974 (The Dark Is Rising); Newbery Medal 1976 (The Grey King)

While this series had been recommended to me before, I finally was able to read it when it was chosen as my book club's July selection. Unfortunately, my apartment flooded the weekend right before the meeting, damaging the last three books, which I had borrowed from a friend, and I only just got around to finishing all of them a few days ago.

Overall, I found the series to be well-written, probably more so than other children's books of its time, as Cooper never simplified her writing or condescended to her audience, as some children's authors are wont to do. I must admit, though, that the first and final installments are probably the weakest of the cycle, as they don't seem to have the same human element or the sense of urgency that is present in the other three books.

In the first book of the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, we are introduced to three siblings on holiday in Cornwall and their eccentric "uncle" (in reality, a family friend, not a blood relation). The pace is a bit slow at first, and even after the quest for the Grail had begun, I don't believe my interest was firmly held until the appearance of the sinister vicar and his henchmen. I would say the last third or so of the book is captivating, but the rest is rather dull, and I can attest that some children to whom I read the opening chapter found it to be such.

The rest of the novels in the series beginning with The Dark Is Rising follow the protagonist Will Stanton, last of the Old Ones, though the Drew children do make an appearance in the third and final books, respectively. It is on Will's eleventh birthday that he discovers he is the last of the Old Ones, and we as readers are meant to learn about the Old Ones and their abilities through him. Unfortunately, Cooper explains very little about the origin of the Old Ones, or what they truly are, which is something that annoyed me while I completed the series. It is also never revealed why Will is the last, or why the Dark has chosen now to make its final stand.

The second through fourth books follow Will and his companions (Merriman, the Drews, and a Welsh boy named Bran) as they search for various artifacts(a harp, a sword, the Grail) that will prevent the Dark from rising. While the action should culminate in the final installment, I found it to be rather anti-climatic, and aside from the personal struggle of a Welshman with whom Will and Bran are acquainted, there was very little tension or emotional impact.

While I would recommend The Prydain Chronicles before The Dark Is Rising Cycle to anyone interested in Welsh inspired fantasy, the series was still intriguing and well-written, even if more exposition could have been given at times. Having read Alexander's work countless times since childhood, I have to admit I still cry at the end of The High King each time I read it, so let that be a testament to his ability to write lovable characters as opposed to Cooper, whose work is much more cerebral.

Series Grade: B

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