Apparently, This is a Classic: Susan Cooper – The Dark Is Rising

Last year, I decided to catch up on some classic SFF that I hadn’t read yet because it’s so easy to get swept away by new publications. I started Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence and I found the first book quite nice. Not groundbreaking, but fun enough. The second book is a Newberry Medal winner and appears on all the lists of best fantasy ever so I had high expectations. Having read it, I honestly don’t know if me and all those other people have read the same book.

THE DARK IS RISING
by Susan Cooper

Published: Puffin, 1973
eBook: 272 pages
Series: The Dark is Rising #2
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: ‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him. 

This night will be bad and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.

It’s Midwinter’s Eve, the day before Will’s eleventh birthday. But there is an atmosphere of fear in the familiar countryside around him. This will be a birthday like no other. Will discovers that he has the power of the Old Ones, and that he must embark on a quest to vanquish the terrifyingly evil magic of the Dark.

The second novel in Susan Cooper’s highly acclaimed Dark is Rising sequence.

Will Stanton is turning eleven just a few days before Christmas and strange things are happening. Birds behave weirdly, his wish for snow seems to be coming true, even though snow doesn’t usually stick around in his home town, and a homeless man appears to be following him around.
It doesn’t take long for Will (and us readers) to find out that Will is an Old One, a person involved in the epic battle between the Light and the Dark. No further details are given because I guess labeling things “good” and “evil” is enough. Will meets Merriman – whom we know from the first book – and is taught a little bit of the awesome powers he now possesses, such as making a fire out of nothing or talking with other Old Ones telepathically. Merrimen does not, however, tell Will not to use those powers because it draws the attention of the Dark… Which just seems like a cruel joke, considering any 11-year-old with the sudden power to make a fire would immediately try that power on his way home through the snow.
So Will does, gets into danger, and gets saved by Merriman who then gives  this vital bit of information to Will. And sadly, that whole introductory part of the book tells you exactly how the rest of it will go.

Will is the Sign-Seeker and he is entrusted with a quest by Merriman and the Lady and some other Old Ones, who happen to be Will’s neighbours. Six signs, shaped like a circle with a cross in the middle have to be found and put together. Again, that’s all they tell the boy. No clue as to where to start, what to do, who to talk to, how to use his powers to help him on this quest… not even any information on why the signs are important or what this battle between Light and Dark is all about. Nothing in this book is ever properly explained and therefore, nothing really makes sense. There are these signs and they get cold when evil is around and Will has to protect them somehow? He also gets this ancient book to read which conveniently pours all the knowledge he nees magically into his brain (forgetting that some of it might be interesting to the readers as well) but which doesn’t change anything about Will’s behaviour, powers, or the way he continues on his quest.

About that qBildergebnis für the dark is rising cooperuest: it may say that Will has to “seek” these magical signs but Will  doesn’t actually do anything in this entire book. Will comes across people who either straight up give him one of the signs or at least tell him exactly what to do to get to it. Will gets in danger occasionaly but those scenes also fell flat because he is immediately rescued by a convenient other Old One (they pop out of the ground whenever the plot requires it). So any tension there might have been is taken out by the author. Will is the most passive protagonist I’ve read in a long time and I don’t see why I should like him. There’s nothing about him to like (or dislike, for that matter). He is just a blank human-shaped something that does what he’s told by complete strangers who say they are the Light and he’s one of them and then he collects signs on his belt and hopes someone will save his ass when the Dark gets too close to him. Let me tell you, this was the opposite of engaging and exciting.

The part I enjoyed the most was actually the non-fantasy aspects. Will’s family is huge and while I have no idea which of the 12 siblings is which I really loved reading about their Christmas excitement, their childish banter, their joy at opening presents and so on. They go carol singing at one point and although there’s really nothing all that special about that part, I found myself enjoying the book way more than during any of the epic blahblah that was happening in between. Again, twelve siblings is a lot and most of them didn’t even get to speak, but the ones that do even felt like real characters with a distinct personality. Chatterbox Mary or calm and reliable Paul come to mind. They felt way more alive than Will ever did.

So to sum it all up, this book has three gigantic problems: a passive protagonist, no world building whatsoever, a thin plot without any real stakes.
What worked was the writing itself. I found the prose quite nice and it built up a great atmosphere of this wintery landscape and of Will jumping around in time – oh yeah, the Old Ones can just go through time somehow but don’t ask me how because with one exception where they go through an actual door, nobody explains how this works or if Will could do it by himself or whatever.
The whole quest never feels like a quest because Will just goes about his everyday life, doing whatever he would be doing anyway and then suddenly magic happens to him and one of the Old Ones is there and hands him a sign or tells him how to get it. He goes and gets it and we’re back to regular life until the whole thing starts over again until finally, all six signs are collected and can be united. Because reasons.

When I had finally reached the end of this tedious repetitive bore of a book, I felt quite cheated because there wasn’t even a big epic fight at the end. Sure, Will faces the Rider (kind of the boss of the Dark, at least in this book) and for the first time has to make a decision on his own, but then – conveniently as everything in this story – things just fall into place and Will can go back to doing whatever he was doing before. Merrimen and the Lady – whoever the hell she really is – conclude that now another one of the four big objects has been restored. The first one was the Grail from the first book which means two more are coming. So I guess that means two more books with “quests” and then, finally, the showdown between the Light and the Dark?

Look, I enjoyed the first book well enough but I would have just let it stand on its own if this series wasn’t hyped as such a classic of children’s literature, mentioned in the same breath with Narnia. If this second volume is any indication of how the series will continue, I’ll just call it quits here and go back to those new releases where plot and character and world building actually matter.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Quite bad

Susan Cooper – Over Sea, Under Stone

This is one of those classic fantasy series that I’ve been meaning to read forever! It keeps coming up in recommendations lists, in the most influential fantasy books, in classics you have to read. And it’s a children’s series that sounds like a lot of fun. So I finally picked it up and, while it is indeed very much aimed at children, I enjoyed it quite a bit and will continue with the series.

OVER SEA, UNDER STONE
by Susan Cooper

Published: Puffin, 1965
Ebook: 224 pages
Series: The Dark is Rising #1
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: “Where is he?” Barney hopped from one foot to the other as he clambered down from the train, peering in vain through the white-faced crowds flooding eagerly to the St. Austell ticket barrier.

On holiday in Cornwall, Simon, Jane and Barney Drew discover an ancient map in the attic of the Grey House, where they are staying with their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry. They know immediately that it is special. But it is much more than just a map. It is the start of a quest to find a grail, a source of great power that could contain – or resurrect – the powerful, age-old forces of evil in the world. And the Drews are not the only ones searching for it.

When we were kids, going on holiday was always an adventure. Whether your family stays by the sea or in the mountains, in a buzzling city or by a quite lake – as kids, you always find things to discover, games to play, epic adventures to invent. That feeling comes across so well in the opening chapters of Over Sea, Under Stone. Jane, Simon, and Barney spend their holiday in Grey House, a house at the coast of Cornwall, a house with secret doors and hidden treasures. When they find a mysterious map that seems to lead to the location of the grail and mentions King Arthur and King Mark, they know they’ve got a proper adventure on their hands.

I adored the start of this book so much! Reading about these three kids and how they search their holiday house for hidden passages, it made me feel like a kid again myself. Jane, Simon, and Barney are easy to like and I loved how they actually behaved like children. Clever ones, of course, but children nonetheless. Over the course of this story, they find out that not all adults can be trusted (in fact, very few of them can) and that they may have found something much bigger than a treasure map.

I don’t want to spoil where the adventure leads them and what surprises wait along the way, but I did feel that – compared to the beautiful beginning – it gets a little predictable after a while. I don’t know why finding a secret attic kept me this excited when running from actual bad guys who want to steal their map left me rather cold but that’s pretty much how I felt. The three children have to learn who to trust and what secrets to keep among themselves. They need to outsmart the adults if they want to keep their treasure safe and they need to stick together!

The book builds up nicely to a climax although the epilogue felt a bit abrupt and didn’t exactly deliver all the closure or information I had hoped for. There is, however, one small revelation at the very end that definitely peaked my interest and that foreshadows things to come in the following books. This felt very much like the introduction to a larger story, not one that can stand well on its own. It was a cute tale, for sure, but more than anything it makes me excited for what will happen next and whether the series will keep following Jane and her brothers or whether we’ll get to see new protagonists.
Had I read this as a child, I might have loved it much more. As a woman in her mid-thirties who has read a rather large number of fantasy books in her time, my final verdict is: cute. Whether this turns out to be the groundbreaking series I’ve heard it claimed, I will find out very soon when I pick up the sequel. It is absolutely worth picking up however, especially if you like the nostalgic feeling of remembering being a kid who goes on a holiday adventure.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good