I’m trying to think of how many other books’ sequels are more notable than the books themselves. The Dark is Rising is the second book in the sequence, yet it was the one that got adapted into an apparently awful film, and it was the one that gave its title to the entire series. I suppose I can see why. Of the first two books, it more stereotypically conforms to the monomyth and has that “epic” quality one desires in “epic fantasy”. Over Sea, Under Stone is firmly a juvenile adventure, whereas the threats and dangers in The Dark is Rising are more potent and terrifying. I complained about the lack of such terror in my review of the first book, but I can’t make that complaint here.
Will Stanton is turning eleven years old. He discovers he is the last Old One, a group of incredibly powerful, immortal beings who fight against the Dark in the name of Light. Much like the recent era of Doctor Who, The Dark is Rising delights in using its title as a catchphrase. We are repeatedly warned that the powers of Dark will be at their strongest soon. Will can defeat them, but only if he finds the six signs required to complete the “circle”. Merriman Lyon (Great-Uncle Merry from the first book) pops in and out to help Will and offer him some guidance, but it’s mostly Will’s show. Sort of.
Gamers like to refer to some video games as having sequences “on rails”, which means an action sequence where the player has little to no control over their movement but full control over their weapons (for example, being on a moving train that takes them along a pre-determined route while they fight off bad guys). These sequences have threats, and often failure modes if the player can’t react fast enough or eliminate enough baddies within a certain time limit. Thus, rails sequences aren’t inherently bad, and they don’t necessarily squelch the enjoyment or tension in a video game. But they can be tricky to do well, and they can often be frustrating.
The Dark is Rising feels like one big story on rails, for both Will and the protagonist. The threats are manifest in a way they weren’t in Over Sea, Under Stone. But the fortuitous outcome all seems so obvious, so pre-destined, that the tension is almost zero. Will seems to recover the signs without much effort on his part. I don’t mean to sell him short, because he does have moments of autonomy that make him shine. For the most part, though, Cooper doesn’t want to take off the training wheels on her hero. Will only makes the mistakes he is allowed to make, the perfect mistakes for a young, untrained hero to make. And the result is character development that feels very artificial and formulaic.
If there is fulfilment to be had here, then it’s in the inevitable empathy one must have for Will. He is thrown out of his depth quite quickly, and he hits the ground running. Say what you will about Harry Potter, he had it pretty easy. He got the guided tour of Hogwarts. Will turns eleven, gets told he is an Old One, and within a few days he has to save the world from the near-infinite power of the Dark. And he can’t talk to anyone about it. Harry had Ron and Hermione. Will only has Merriman, who as inconstant presence at best. He can’t tell his siblings why the farmer’s daughter is evil; he can’t explain that the horrendous snowstorm the countryside is experiencing is a result of evil’s waxing power. Will is completely alone.
Will’s adversaries, the Rider and, later, the Walker, prey upon that chink in his psychological armour. They bring to bear the age-old “you can never hope to defeat the power of the dark side” speech, and it starts to wear Will down. He perseveres every time, and he succeeds every time--and as I said above, it’s not surprising he does. But it’s still fun to watch him struggle against the emotional toll this is taking. This is particularly true at the climax of the book, when it seems that Merriman has deserted him and Will has to choose between vanquishing the Dark or saving his sister.
The Dark is Rising is indubitably better than Over Sea, Under Stone, though the latter has plenty going for it. Neither, though, has convinced me it’s worth being called a classic. The story and characters have changed, but there is still an overwrought, painfully obvious quality to the writing--the disharmonious sounds of Cooper trying so very hard. Great writing isn’t effortless, by any means. But mediocre writing is usually very hard indeed.