Book Review: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Ah, The Dark is Rising.  This is a classic story that hits all the right notes.  It follows typical Arthurian / Welsh mythology.  There is a young boy, his wise mentor, a quest for magical artifacts, an epic battle of good versus evil.  It appeals to every child’s sense that there is magic in the real world, just out of sight.

It is primarily plot-driven.  Will – the youngest of a dozen children – is already old for his age and does not mature much beyond assuming his new powers and responsibilities.  He lives in a quiet, modern-day (well, modern for the early 1970s) village that honors its ancient history.  On his 11th birthday, he learns that is the youngest member of the circle of the Old Ones, and must wield the powers of The Light to vanquish The Dark.

Sure beats an X-box.

His mentor is Merriman Lyon, the first of the Old Ones, who is incognito as the butler on the nearby manor estate.  The owner of the estate is The Lady, a wise and kind old woman.  She is the most powerful of the Old Ones, and serves as a guiding light.

Will is the Seeker – he must find four Things of Power (Cooper isn’t big on linguistics like J.K Rowling.  She cuts straight to the most painfully obvious name).  The first is the Circle of Six Signs, which are all mandalas representing the Light.  Will has to hop through time (although, conveniently, not through space) and face challenges to fetch each Sign.  If your child likes video games and apps, they will appreciate this task-and-reward system.

While there are certain protections around Will and his family (who have no clue about his true identity), they are in very real danger from the Black Rider, who is obviously a Dark One.  In olden times, the Rider wears a black cape and rides a black horse and can be as sneeringly evil as he pleases.  When he steps into modern times, he hides his villainous intent behind charming manipulation.  He wraps the village in the blizzard of the century to put the squeeze the Stanton family.  Everyone moves into the manor estate for warmth and supplies, demonstrating that charmingly British keep-calm-and-carry-on wartime spirit.

 

In the confusion, the Rider kidnaps Will’s sister, and Will must risk his life to save her.  I know it sounds like the classic scenario of the damsel tied to the railroad tracks while the villain twirls his mustache, and it kinda is.  But all the magic and mythology make it poetic.

 

Like I said, not much character development.  Evil people stay evil, and good people are good.  Will learns caution and discretion in handling his new powers and identity, but otherwise it would be hard to tell if he was 11 or 41.  The book relies on the classic plot and smooth story-telling.

 

This is actually the second book in the five-part series.  But it’s the best to start with, because it sucks you into the world and gets you invested in the struggle between the Dark and the Light.  The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, is about ordinary children on the fringe of the great struggle.  It’s a good addition to the series, but not gripping enough to make the reader commit to the series.  It’s like C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew.  It technically comes first in the timeline, but you don’t need to appreciate the story, and it might actually ruin some of the suspense and surprise.  I recommend reading The Dark is Rising first, then Over Sea, Under Stone, and then continuing with the rest of the story. The ordinary children – siblings Simon, Jane, and Barney – join forces with Will in the third book, Greenwitch.

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