Review of Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper
Silver on the Tree
by Susan Cooper
Well, here we are, at the end of a very long journey. I can see now why The Dark is Rising sequence is packaged, well, as a sequence. The individual novels are quite short--some of them closer to novellas than anything else. The five-book stories are in fact a single story, but packaged together, they take up nearly 800 pages of very small print. It's an adult-sized story aimed at young adults and children, and I imagine the omnibus edition is intimidating. I found it intimidating, which is why I've been taking it one book at a time.
When I started reading this series, I was fairly dismissive of Susan Cooper's ideas and writing. Over Sea, Under Stone isn't a very well-developed book, and I stand by the problems I had with its plotting and characterization. In some respects, these criticisms have never completely evaporated. Though the novels steadily improve, my complaints about each of them are, by and large, very similar. However, I feel somewhat hobbled in the sense that I don't think I'm the appropriate audience for these books. I think that older children and young adults would devour these without fail, and it's not really fair for me to press adult sensibilities upon such fare.
The last two books, The Grey King and this one, Silver on the Tree, have forced me to reevaluate Cooper. These are the best books in the series, not the least because they contain genuine peril and high stakes. Both take on a more complex structure, with Cooper resorting to parts as well as chapters to organize everything. Silver on the Tree is the climax and the resolution; the forces of Dark are rising to make one final attempt to take control of our world, and the Light, led by Will Stanton, must stand against the Dark.
It's all very exciting. I'm still uncomfortable, though, by the extent to which Cooper leans on destiny. And this isn't unique to her; it's an issue a lot of strong fantasy writers seem to struggle with. Relying too much on destiny and prophecy and "knowledge" acquired through arcane means irks me in a fantasy novel, because it spoils some of the mystery of the story. Barring a very downer ending (which we obviously wouldn't see here), we know the protagonists have to succeed. It's not about whether they win; it's about how. But if so much of it is choreographed by destiny, down to the point where our protagonists almost can't fail, then the story becames a cutscene in a rails shooter, and it starts to lose its appeal.
That's an issue when the two sides are called "Light" and "Dark". They are simplistic in a way that appeals to kids and even to some adults. But when all the heroes are unfaltering in their allegiance to the Light, it gets boring. The most intense parts of these books occur when other characters have to make the choice to side with the Light or the Dark. One of these moments happens in Silver on the Tree, when John Rowlands must rule whether Bran belongs in the present time and, therefore, is able to help the Light push back the Dark. Both sides are bound by the Higher Magic, and they mutually empower John as the adjudicator. The Dark tempts John with his wife in a rather heartbreaking way. And he still chooses for the Light--which, again, is not much of a surprise. But hey, at least we had some dramatic tension.
(And then, because the Light is paternalistic as shit, after John can't decide whether to keep his memory of these strange events, the Lady decides for him and makes him forget. Why not just make everyone except the Old Ones and Bran forget? Why do Barney, Simon, and Jane need to remember?)
I'm glad I read this series, because now I know what people are talking about when they extol its role in their lives. I've had similar books--for me, the Belgariad was my gateway to epic fantasy in a way Lord of the Rings never was, even though the latter is arguably better. I am, without a doubt, a literary snob, albeit one who occasionally tries to mend his ways. And in such a gesture, it's necessary to note that a book doesn't have to be "good" to also be influential (that vampire book ring any bells?). Yet our definition of "good" is always going to vary. I do, in fact, consider The Dark is Rising as a whole a good series, but one with much variation within that category. I can't personally attest to its greatness or claim it has left much of a lasting impression on me. But I can see the potential for it to do so, in another time and another place.