27 February 2018
Susan Cooper has yet to equal "The Dark is Rising," the second book of her classic Dark is Rising Sequence. Too bad the movie adaptation looks like a hollow "Harry Potter" ripoff.
That whole attitude betrays the beauty and spirit of her second "Dark is Rising Sequence" novel, which is independent of her the first book "Over Sea Under Stone." This book is deeper, darker, more dreamlike, more intense, and with an unlikely hero -- a stunning battle between good and evil.
Will Stanton is an ordinary boy, until his Midwinter eleventh birthday. On that day, he ventures out into a seemingly changed world, encounters a sinister Dark Rider, then a beautiful white horse that leads him to a hidden place. There he encounters the Old Ones -- the mysterious Lady and Merriman Lyon, who are immortal, powerful, wise, and the guardians of the world. And it turns out Will is one too.
And as an astonishingly cold winter settles over England, Will is taught some of the ways of the Old Ones, who fight the Dark (forces of evil, like the Dark Rider). He has one of the signs of power, but must get them all: Iron, Bronze, Stone, Wood, Fire and Water. And he must contend with the Dark Rider, his own failings, and a mysterious stranger whose future is inextricably entwined with his...
To put it simply, this is Susan Cooper at her peak -- she creates an amazing look at a world where where the mysterious and magical exist just a few feet from our homes and. The slighest actions have significance, time is easily manipulated, and there's a sprinkling of Welsh myth and Arthurian legend here and there -- particularly at the end.
Since her first book, Cooper also became a truly brilliant writer -- in "Over Sea Under Stone," her writing was rather spare, and reeked of E. Nesbit. Here, she more than makes up for it -- while the story is a straightforward quest, she complicates matters with a subplot about Merriman being forced to make a terrible sacrifice, and the Dark threatening Will's family. Sometimes being on the good guys' side isn't easy.
The book is also thick with atmosphere -- the shocking, icy presence of the Dark, the bustling farmhouse, the eerie woods where the Walker goes, and countless other situations. Cooper does sometimes get too detailed (I really don't care how you feed chickens) but her intricate writing is what brings the book to life: the howling blizzards, rings of black birds, the tainted merriness of a Christmas party, and a book of ancient magic that can't be read -- only experienced.
Will himself is an astonishingly three-dimensional character: at times he's a smart, quiet eleven-year-old, and sometimes he's an Old One with immense power and wisdom. This transition is not one that is handled lightly, as he gradually loses his innocent, boyish outlook. The person who guides him is Merriman Lyon, a majestic old man who has made some terrible choices in the past.
"The Dark is Rising" is a spellbinding classic fantasy, which fully reveals the good vs. evil battle that Cooper only hinted at before. Entrancing, intoxicatingly written, and always magical.