The Dark is Rising is the second novel in Susan Cooper’s five book The Dark is Rising sequence. After the almost leisurely adventure in Over
Sea, Under Stone, Ms Cooper kicks the conflict between the Light and the Dark into high gear in this book.
Instead of a seaside village in Cornwall, this tale begins in the English countryside at the home of a large family, the Stantons. A real large family. Mom, Dad, seven boys and three girls. The story centers on the youngest, Will, who is about to turn eleven, three days before Christmas. But he won’t just be turning eleven. He will be coming of age, so to speak, as an Old One. Actually, Will is the last of the Old Ones.
Helping him in this endeavor is the one character from the first book to appear here; Merriman Lyon, AKA Great-Uncle Merry to Barney, Jane and Simon. If you’ve read the first book, you know Merriman is far from ordinary, and he makes no pretense of being some distant relative or family friend here. Will gets to know him as he really is, an Old One of exceptional power. Indeed, Merriman is a wizard of Gandalf-like stature, sharing many of the Tolkien character’s mannerisms, habits and speaking patterns. It’s hard not to think that Ms Cooper patterned Merriman on Gandalf. But, of course, he is not. He is the appearance of perhaps the most famous wizard of western lore: Merlin. Cooper never comes right out and tells us this, though she came close at the end of Over Sea, Under Stone.
Will’s becoming an Old One involves a large amount of learning and, naturally, a quest. The quest here is for a set of six signs of power that must be brought together, or “joined.” The signs are circles quartered by a cross and are made of wood, bronze, iron, water, fire and stone, respectively. Oh, and not all of them are present in Will’s own time. The Dark must prevent Will from gathering these signs, for they have the power to stop the Dark from ascending to dominate the world.
The plot in The Dark is Rising moves forward briskly, with nicely placed twists and turns. Along the way, Cooper exposes young minds to some important ideas, including the notion that humans are free to choose between good and evil, the nature of time and history, and the cleverness of the Dark in using people’s good emotions to accomplish evil. Even better, in this book the author sets loose the forces of magic to wonderful effect. Unlike some modern fantasy authors, Ms Cooper has respect for the magic and doesn’t use it as a sideshow. It is integral to the story she is telling. And it’s a good thing that Merriman and Will have some powerful magic available to them because in The Dark is Rising, the forces of the Dark are immensely more ominous and threatening than in the first book. In fact, as book races to its finish the sense of evil’s relentlessness is conveyed very effectively.
While this book is a good read on its own, it’s clear that Ms Cooper is still putting things in place for the rest of the series. I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes with it. Next up, Greenwitch.
Here are some reasons I consider this one of the “good stories:”
– Positive depiction of a large family and its interactions.
– Accurate portrayal of Anglican church service. Church shown as positive aspect of family life.
– Examines serious and important ideas about life, including free will, and the nature of good and evil.
– Imparts a sense of wonder about the world.
– Shows the virtues of hope and faith in the face of dire circumstances.