The Dark is Rising

by Susan Cooper

Cover image

Series: Dark is Rising #2
Publisher: Aladdin
Copyright: 1973
Printing: 1986
ISBN: 0-689-71087-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 244

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While this is the second book in the Dark is Rising sequence and does share one character (Merriman Lyon) with Over Sea, Under Stone, it's both a very different book and almost completely unrelated. There's no need to read Over Sea, Under Stone before reading this book, and they have somewhat different appeals. Over Sea, Under Stone is a standard English children's adventure story, while The Dark is Rising is pure sense of wonder fantasy.

If you study the details of the plot, The Dark is Rising is frankly a little silly. Very strange things start happening to Will on his eleventh birthday, just a few days before Christmas. Shortly afterwards, strange things start happening to all of England, with a winter storm like nothing anyone has seen before. The evil immortal Dark is trying to gain control of the world again, and to stop them, Will and his immortal Old One protectors have to gather six plot coupons to redeem for a happy ending — er, gather six ancient symbols that they can use to defeat the Dark. A couple of chapters in, I realized the book so far would serve quite well as an introduction for a platformer video game.

But you don't read this book for the plot. You read it for pure sense of wonder, for the feeling that great things are abroad in the world, that one's everyday surroundings are full of hidden secrets and lost treasures. It's a young adult novel about discovering one is special and important, about learning power and complications and struggle, about trying to capture in a fantasy novel the magical feeling of ancient places, ancient wars, and courageous hidden battles.

In short, it doesn't break new ground, even when it was first published, but The Dark is Rising is one of those books that is fondly remembered by anyone who read it at a certain age. It's a great children's novel and not bad at all when read as an adult, provided that one can enjoy a book that does little new but redoes the old with flair and style.

If it has a major flaw, it's that it tends to be a bit too cinematic and non-interactive for Will. Yes, he takes the key action in most scenes, but the scenes almost always come to him and he has so many powerful magical helpers that he has to beat them off with a stick. Only at the end of the book is he not extensively prompted with the right thing to do or saved at the last minute by other people or convenient magic (and even then, he isn't exactly on his own). It's hard to avoid the feeling that he isn't doing very much, that the only thing special about him is that he's been declared to be special and that most characters put in his position would do the same thing. Cooper still manages to give a good sense of Will as a character through description and his reactions, but there is a distinct whiff of guided tour to the plot.

This does hurt the book. I would have enjoyed it more with a richer plot, more proactive activity by the main character, and a bit less predestination and inevitability to the outcome. Cooper's descriptive powers make up for the flaws, though. It's hard to capture in a review just why The Dark is Rising is so worth reading; the fantasy genre does not have a paucity of coming of age stories set against the backdrop of a climatic battle with ancient evil. Cooper, however, avoids unimportant details and exposition, builds her world with subtle hints and glimpses that are intriguing without being confusing, and has a beautiful touch with rising action. Despite the stock nature of the plot, she repeatedly had me on the edge of my seat, managing to build up dread and triumph with characters who should have felt like stock cardboard. It's amazing work.

This is a great book, and if you've not already read it, I recommend it. Know what you're in for before you start; if you go in expecting a complex plot or deep characters, you may be disappointed. Read it for the description, the emotion, and the sense of place, wonder, and majesty. And while you're at it, offer a copy to a younger reader.

Followed by Greenwitch.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-03-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21