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The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising (The Dark is Rising, #2)The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Dark Is Rising, the second novel of The Dark Is Rising Sequence, a set of five novels of speculative fiction and fantasy published from 1965 to 1977, is a lot more sinister than the first novel of the series: Over Sea, Under Stone. The setting is Christmastime in the English countryside some 50 years ago where Will Stanton is turning 11 years old. Will learns on his birthday that he is an Old One, one of the magical beings that are able to step through Time and alter the universe in a myriad of ways. He also learns about the great moral war between the forces of Light and Dark, which are first presented in the earlier novel.

In Over Sea, Under Stone, the forces of Dark are somewhat bungling, overbearing adults who manage to become threatening during the course of the novel despite their shortcomings. Eight years later, Susan Cooper’s villains are a lot nastier, and the stakes are higher. Merriman returns from the first book, but is not the gay Gumerry who is engaged in carefree exploration of the world. This Merriman is presented as a complex character with blemishes, including a mistake (Hawkin) that puts Will’s life in jeopardy and makes one question whether the motives of Light are inherently good and just. There are other occurrences that raise the same concern, and the reader’s certainty is challenged.

I love how she paints settings. Whether it’s inside the manor or trudging in the snow in the countryside, the descriptive nature of her language is rich and flavorful. You can smell the dung and see the expressions on the faces of the characters. One area of weakness is the time travel aspects of the story where there is some hand waving (credit to her for bring it up through Will’s questions) about the inevitable ramifications of altering the past.

My largest criticism is that the plot seems predictable, because Will is on a quest to collect six signs that are presented in a poem. The six signs are wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone and collectively they represent the power to repel the Dark. Thus, the simplified plot becomes “Will the Sign-Seeker, 7th son of 7th son, collects the signs and defeats the Dark”, which is forecast early on in the story. Will overcomes a ton of obstacles along the way, and the end battle is colorful and filled with uncertainty, but the gist of the story follows Will on his journey and there are no surprises. Another constriction is that the time allotted is small, essentially the time from Will’s birthday through the 12th day of Christmas.

Even so, the story feels expansive and the war between Light and Dark, an ongoing war since the beginning of human civilization, is compelling. The reader is well rewarded for suspending disbelief. The characters feel fuller than Over Sea, Under Stone, and the question of Hawkin makes Merriman enormously more complex than Gumerry of the first book.

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