Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper: Maps, magic, and ancient treasure
First book in the The Dark Is Rising series
Overall rating: 10/10
Quality of writing: 10/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): low
Age level: 10 and up
When three British children discover an ancient map in the attic while on holiday in Cornwall, they are plunged into a centuries-old treasure hunt for a copy of the Holy Grail which foretells the second coming of King Arthur. However, a mysterious “Mr. Withers” is also searching for the Grail, and will stop at nothing to find it before they do. In this absorbing tale, Susan Cooper blends English history and Arthurian legends together with fast-paced action and convincing characters to create a decidedly “English” fantasy story that will enthrall readers of all ages.
Although some reviewers consider the plot of this book to be too slow-paced, in my experience most readers do not find this to be an issue: while some sections of the storyline are paced slower than others, Cooper balances these with exciting action sequences, giving an overall impression of a plot that is neither fast nor slow, but moves at the exact tempo required to keep readers engaged. Another positive feature of Over Sea, Under Stone is its having one of the most clear-cut divisions between Good and Evil of any book. Consider this passage for example: “That struggle… between good and evil goes on all round us all the time, like two armies fighting… but neither has ever triumphed altogether, for there is something of each in every man.” Characters are either “good” or “bad,” and the reader almost always knows which. Overall, the plot of this book is very well done, and merits a 9.5 out of 10.
Although the story focuses mainly on the three children Barnabas (Barney), Simon, and Jane (and these characters are well-developed and unique in their own right), perhaps the most interesting character to the reader is their uncle, Professor Merriman Lyons. Enigmatic and mysterious, he interprets the map which the children find and explains its significance to the ancient battle between Good and Evil. Intriguingly, a passing reference by Jane at the end of the book also hints that Merrriman may in fact be the Merlin of Arthurian legend. The other characters besides the children and Merriman are quite believable as well (and Cooper does an excellent job with the accents of different characters). On the whole, the characters of Over Sea, Under Stone are unique and convincing, complex while remaining true to the book’s age level, and engaging enough to hold the interest of any reader. (10/10)
While this book is not the easiest read among children’s literature, neither is it exceptionally difficult: although it incorporates occasional old-fashioned language and descriptive language (which might be confusing for some), the plot is fairly straightforward and readable and the style overall is engaging. With these factors in mind, Over Sea, Under Stone gets a 4 out of 10 on difficulty.
Quality of writing
In this book, Cooper does a very good job of conveying the “ancient-ness” and “epic-ness” of the conflict into which the children have stumbled, while losing none of the engaging style of more modern literature. Additionally, Cooper’s descriptive imagery builds an atmosphere that is distinctly “British” (a bit like that of the Green Knowe Chronicles), which really enhances the whole experience for the reader. Overall, not only is the quality of writing in Over Sea, Under Stone excellent, but it also fits perfectly with the style of the book on the whole, making this quite an enjoyable read. (10/10)
This book has no real violence and no language; however, the “bad guys” are definitely evil, and the reader does see this. Mr. Withers especially demonstrates this, threatening to leave the children to drown (after kidnapping Barnabas) at one point. Younger readers may also find some scenes a bit “scary,” but these scenes are fairly infrequent and non-graphic. Overall, Over Sea, Under Stone has a few “scary” scenes, but no real content that readers should worry about.
While Over Sea, Under Stone has no violence or language and the “scariness level” is low, based on the content of the other books in the series, it is recommended for ages 10 and up.