I’ve been making a slow tour through Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence for a few months now. It’s undeniably an important series in the fantasy canon, but my personal reaction to it has been more ambivalent. I have been rather disappointed with the novels as stories. They’re brilliant examples of methodical mythological remixing. Yet in adjusting the tone of the books to aim them to her younger audience, Cooper also seems to feel it’s necessary to remove a great deal of the complexity and subtlety that makes novels such an interesting literary form. Novels, to me, are interesting beasts. Their ability to ensnare and divert readers through twisting passages of description and narration make them far craftier and less trustworthy than their dramatic and poetic cousins; novels aim to make a meal out of the reader. The best writers are those who can harness this predatory nature to craft stories that absorb the reader by tickling us with the hints and harsh edges of the darkness at the edge of the light.
The previous volumes of this series lack that complexity and that depth of conflict required to sustain that interest. I haven’t read these as a child, so I can’t speak to how I might like or dislike them. But children understand darkness a lot more than many people give them credit for doing. Their lives are not the perfect, innocent world we often want them to be. So I think we do them a disservice when we insist that the fiction we give them ignores real-and-present darkness in favour of more abstract, "kid-safe" versions. Ironically, given that most of its conflict concerns the battle between the Light and the Dark, The Dark is Rising sequence is mostly the latter. With few exceptions, these are books where the main characters fight the powers of darkness on their holidays, on the side, and danger never seems to be more serious than having to run away from a bad man.
So, prior to reading it, I admit to being rather baffled by the fact that The Grey King won the Newberry. This just goes to show that prior performance can’t always predict future success: this book is a long sight better than the previous ones in the series. For Cooper deigns to put Will and his sidekick in far deeper waters than she has ever dared previously, and the payoff is immediate and gratifying. The Grey King edges ever closer to being the tricksy type of creature a novel should be.
Will visits some relatives in Wales as he recovers from an illness. (I don’t think this kid ever actually goes to school.) It’s implied the illness might be an attempt by the Dark to derail him, since for a little while he seems to have forgotten the rhyme he learned at the end of Greenwitch. If so, the attempt backfired in a big way, since Will ends up visiting the exact place he needs to be to find the Golden Harp and wake the Sleepers. Destiny for the win!
Cooper experiments with structure as well, dividing the book into two parts that concern the two quests Will undertakes while in Wales. The previous stories were all quests of some sort, but this one has much more focus. Merriman continues to pop in and out in that annoying Gandalfian way of his, but it’s much less frequent and intrusive than it has been in the past. The Grey King feels like Will’s story, more so even than The Dark is Rising.
Except it’s also kind of Bran’s story.
A new character, Bran is special in terms of his heritage. However, Cooper manages to strike a balance between building Bran up and giving Will enough to do to justify his presence as an Old One. The two work as a complementary duo: Bran has a certain amount of fortitude and, of course, local knowledge, while Will has his own specialized knowledge as an Old One and the sense of indomitable spirit that has allowed him to succeed in the past. Neither could stand against the Grey King by himself; together, they make a compelling team.
This is the first of the Dark is Rising books that feels like it gives the protagonists enough to do and provides a meaningful threat. The previous books had intriguing puzzles and interesting main characters. But the stakes, despite ostensibly involving the fate of the world, never quite seemed high enough. In contrast, Cooper puts her protagonists in more danger here, with stakes that include their own lives and lives of trusted companions. Never has the Dark seemed like a more dangerous enemy than in this book.
One more to go. Silver on the Tree has a lot it must deliver, as the last novel in this sequence, and the surprising quality of The Grey King compared to its predecessors only enhances my expectations for the last book. Though I continue to enjoy Cooper’s writing and her use of British mythology in her stories, I hope the trend towards complexity seen here continues.