The Dark Is Rising continues Susan Cooper's famed young-adult fantasy saga, though its release eight years after Over Sea, Under Stone illustrates just how different today's publishing practices differ from those of thirty years ago. Clearly there wasn't as much pressure back then to crank books out like processed food. The results are tangible: The Dark Is Rising is one of the best fantasies ever written, young-adult or otherwise. Seeped in mystery, magic, atmosphere and a very keen sense of the significance of mythology and history, there's more to inspire wonder in this small, haunting book than there is in most entire trilogies.
Readers today will instantly recognize all of the mythic tropes Susan Cooper brings to bear in this tale. This novel revels in its archetypes, but where a lesser writer would turn a novel like this into an exercise in going through the motions, Cooper weaves a gripping and dreamlike story that reminds us exactly why archetypes have the power they do.
Will Stanton is the youngest child (and, significantly, the seventh son of a seventh son, no less) of a large English farming family who, on the eve of his eleventh birthday, learns that he is the last of the Old Ones, immortal beings whose task it has been since the dawn of time to protect the world from the forces of the Dark. It is Will's task to seek six magical Signs, each in the form of a cross within a circle, which, when united, will provide the ultimate weapon against the Dark. Will is aided in his quest by other Old Ones, most importantly Merriman Lyon, introduced to us in Over Sea and whose true identity provides the series' most direct link to the Arthurian legends. Will's enemies include the sinister Rider, who menaces Will from astride a black stallion, and the mad Walker, who seeks the Signs himself out of a demented desire for revenge against Merriman.
On top of high myth, The Dark Is Rising is also a coming of age story, as Will learns of his true calling and destiny at the threshold of adolescence. Cooper doesn't cut corners when fleshing out Will's family life, and Will's bevy of brothers and sisters, plus his doting parents, give Will a warm, human context in which to frame his superhuman tasks. Will learns for the first time of a brother who died years ago in infancy. He hero-worships a big brother who's overseas in the armed forces (and who yet manages to play a role in Will's personal transformation) and finds himself under the watchful eye of another brother, Paul, the only family member to suspect that something about Will is changing. There's no time, despite the challenges he comes to face and the powers he must learn to wrest control over, that you stop believing in Will as an 11-year-old kid.
The winter setting of the novel establishes the perfect backdrop for this proudly traditional good-vs-evil saga. There's just something about cold weather that conveys magic and fantasy, and Cooper gives us plenty of cold, all right. As Will's power increases, the Dark responds by blanketing the entire countryside in the worst snowstorms it has suffered in years. The roaring winds of winter storms are so vividly depicted by Cooper you can almost hear them and feel the cold in your bones. And a genuinely eerie sense of foreboding permeates the narrative, without which the story wouldn't have worked half as well. Without a visceral understanding of the danger Will faces — without honestly believing that the Dark is rising — this book would have indeed been just a string of fantasy clichés. Many fantasy writers work their way through "good" and "evil" story elements as if they were just accessories, but Cooper gives you a conflict that means something. Whether subtly, as in the flock of rooks that follow Will around and spy on him from treetops, or overtly, as in the scene in which the entire town is huddled for warmth in a manor hall against the increasingly violent supernatural ice storms, Cooper knows how to draw readers into the story with a sense of danger they can have a stake in.
But Cooper isn't merely blessing us with terrific art direction by setting the story in the winter; no, everything pays homage to the myths from which she draws inspiration. The story takes place over the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas (with Will's birthday falling on Midwinters' Eve), but anyone who knows a little history will know this time of year is not merely significant to Christianity. Pagan traditions that predate Christianity by centuries held their most important holidays at this time of year, too, and Cooper's story ties together all of these holiday traditions, from myths both ancient and contemporary. You'll also notice what an important role music plays in the story. Each of the book's major scenes incorporates music to some degree, either simply to carry the mood or more directly to announce the arrival of something new and mystical.
This is really a wondrous book that can be appreciated by lovers of great storytelling both young and old. If you vaguely remember reading it as a kid, don't hesitate to pick it up again. You'll find it will still hold you in its thrall. And if you're a parent, you'd be derelict in your duties if you didn't give Susan Cooper's novels to the little J. K. Rowling fan in your house. Settle in and enjoy...especially if it's a dark and stormy night! (Though, based solely on the trailer, I'd have to advise you to avoid the 2007 movie, which looks to render the material utterly banal in typically Hollywood fashion. Stick to the original!)