The Grey King

by Susan Cooper

Cover image

Series: Dark is Rising #4
Publisher: Aladdin
Copyright: 1975
Printing: 1986
ISBN: 0-689-71089-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 165

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This is much more like it. After the let-down of Greenwitch, Cooper returns to a focus on Will and returns to more the style and background of The Dark is Rising. It's also readable without any of the previous books, although The Dark is Rising introduces Will and Merriman and provides the plot background.

I was very happy to see Will, mythology, and a sense of wonder front and center again; I think Cooper is stronger writing that sort of story than a pure adventure or detective story with child protagonists. She does have to depower Will a bit to let her write the beginning of the story, so he starts off with some selective amnesia, but that goes away in time. The focus of the book is the recovery of a magical artifact and the fulfillment of a prophecy that will help the Light go on the offensive against the Dark rather than simply playing defense, a bit like the plot coupon chasing of The Dark is Rising, but Cooper does a good job of not making the story too predictable.

Will, recovering from hepatitis, is sent to the Welsh countryside at the start of the book to get fresh air and to get away from school and stress (or so people think). The story quickly moves into mythology, though, as Will remembers scraps of a prophetic poem (printed at the front of the book), which is full of clues for recovering a golden harp and awaking the Sleepers. The danger is that this area is a stronghold of the Dark, particularly a lord of the Dark called the Grey King, who will do whatever he can to stop Will's quest. And then there's Bran, a boy who works on a neighboring farm and who has a strange past tangled up in local legend.

Characterization here is great. The sense of wonder never reaches the beautiful peaks of The Dark is Rising, but the characterization is actually better. Will and, to a lesser extent, Merriman are somewhat one-trick ponies; Bran and his father, on the other hand, are far more complex and ambiguous characters. Having Bran to react to makes Will far more interesting. He's still the everyman character, the insertion point for the reader, but rather than passively following a pre-ordained story, this time he has to react to Bran and figure out how to help him. I think Bran's my favorite character of the series so far.

Cooper continues to do a good job at mythology, adding just enough structure to give the sense of a large framework and to give sense to the story but not so much as to destroy the sense of wonder or make things too explainable. There were a few too many magical spells in this book for me, but I'll forgive that for the interesting distinctions between High Magic, Light, and Dark, for the excellent use of prophetic verse, or the good use to which she puts glimmers of the Matter of Britain. (Usually I'm leery of anything Arthurian, but Cooper does a great job.) I liked the descriptions of Wales here as well, and Bran even takes a moment to give Will an extremely useful introduction to Welsh pronunciation.

Cooper is on firmer ground with these more heavily magic-based and mythology-based episodes in the series than with the English holiday adventure stories of the Drews. This isn't quite the book that The Dark is Rising was, but it's close. I see that the final book brings the Drews back into the picture again; hopefully it will keep this tone.

Followed by Silver on the Tree.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-12-10

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04