Silver on the Tree

by Susan Cooper

Cover image

Series: Dark is Rising #5
Publisher: Aladdin
Copyright: 1975
Printing: 1977
ISBN: 0-689-71152-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 275

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the final book of the Dark is Rising sequence. It's somewhat readable on its own, but it builds strongly on the previous book, The Grey King. If you are tempted to start the series in the middle, don't start here.

Finally, the grand finale, and thankfully Cooper stays almost entirely away from the children's adventure setup of Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch and continues with the style of The Grey King. The Drew children do return, but they're an odd sidelight of the story, apparently there mostly to provide extra eyes, rescue opportunities, and warm bodies to fill out the requirements of a few prophecies. The focus of the story is almost entirely on Will Stanton and Bran Davies.

That does mean that, once again, Cooper has some problems with the power levels. This time, rather than depowering anyone, she instead avoids the situation entirely by tightly scripting the requirements, puzzles, and adventures through which the plot has to go so that no one's power is able to be used for anything out of the story. That's also the primary drawback to this book: it runs on rails, even more so than the rest of this series. Cooper sets up the prophecy and the hints and then runs the characters through a set of challenges, during which they use every hint, resource, and ally in the appointed order until they reach the last line of the song and the final triumph.

This is not a book, or indeed a series, to read for the plot. Silver on the Tree is probably the worst example of this, but it's present to some degree in all of the Will sections of the series. It's very obvious from the beginning of the story that the author knows exactly how the puzzles will be resolved, has set up that structure via prophecy and hints from incredibly powerful characters who can't be directly involved, and is going to run the characters through that structure. At its worst, it reminds me of reading a walkthrough of a text adventure game. At its best, it reminds me of reading a walkthrough of a truly excellent text adventure game.

Despite the lack of any sense of real alternative for the characters, Cooper has a wonderful touch with description and sense of place and even a surprisingly good touch with character. Will is a bit of a featureless everyman throughout the series, but the rest of the cast feel real, or at least interestingly larger than life. When Cooper pulls in traditional British mythology, such as Arthur, one gets a strong sense of the grandeur, presence, and charisma of these figures without feeling like the author is forcing it on the reader. There are also some lovely descriptions of simple Welsh countrysides and a satisfying lost magical city and castle.

The conclusion works, but leaves a bit to be desired, in part because there's so little sense of risk. The characters are afraid, but the plot is predetermined and Cooper rarely truly hurts her characters (and even when she does, it's with clear foreshadowing). It's hard to believe that anything truly bad could happen. It's immediately obvious that this is not the sort of book where the Dark could possibly win in the end, or even cost the Light too dearly. Cooper does try, with a nice counter-maneuver by the Dark near the end of the book (spoiled only by its near-complete lack of believable setup prior to that point which makes it feel like a bad bit of characterization), and that's the strongest point of believable menace in the book. But this is a book that one reads for the journey and the descriptions thereof more than for the conclusion.

I do recommend this series as a whole, particularly for its intended children's audience, as some of the best pure sense-of-wonder writing that I've found. It only has one very weak entry (Greenwitch); the rest is at least enjoyable. But The Dark is Rising stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of the series and is quite readable on its own. Reading the rest of the series gives you more of the same, which given the strength of The Dark is Rising isn't a bad thing, but be aware that nothing else reaches the same level.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-12-18

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