The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper: Epic English quest-tale
Second book in the The Dark Is Rising series
Overall rating: 10/10
Quality of writing: 10/10
Characters: 9/10 C
oncerning content (language, violence, etc.): some
Age level: 10 and up
On his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton discovers that he is the last of the “Old Ones,” immortal beings tasked with defending mankind from the Dark, an evil force as old as time itself. For the twelve days following this revelation, Will must seek the six Signs—magical artifacts that will allow the Light to eventually banish the Dark forever. Combining ancient Celtic myths with modern fantasy, this fast-paced story was also named the Newbery Honor Book for 1974.
While the plot in this book is fast-paced, it does take a while for the action to get moving (a chapter and a half; and it isn’t explained until the second and third chapters). However, the plot overall is engaging and full of action; and as with the rest of the series, the conflict is quite clear-cut: the Light (good) versus the Dark (evil). Characters are either good or bad, unless they change sides (and even then, it is apparent to the reader which side the character is on). The plot is straightforward (based on possibly the oldest style of plot: the quest) but remains interesting, and overall deserves a 9/10.
The main character, Will Stanton, is an eleven-year-old English boy who is suddenly thrust into a centuries-old conflict that he could have never imagined. Over the course of the book, we see him develop as a character, not only through his newfound powers, but also in learning how to cope with the fact that he is immortal, while the rest of his family is not. Will also gains decisiveness and a new knowledge of the nature of Good and Evil (as represented by the Light and Dark). However, Will is not the only character readers may find interesting: fans of the previous book in the series (Over Sea, Under Stone) will be excited to learn that Merriman Lyons returns in this book, and is revealed to be not a human, but one of the Old Ones, like Will. On the whole, the characters in The Dark is Rising are quite well-written and merit a 9/10.
While the plot and conflict of this book are clear-cut and straightforward, the style can be a bit archaic at times: some of the characters are centuries-old immortal beings, after all. Additionally, since one of the powers of the “Old Ones” is time travel, characters move between time periods frequently, which might confuse some readers. With this in mind, this book gets a 4.5/10 on difficulty.
Quality of writing
Possibly the most impressive attribute of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence in general (and this book more than some others) is the atmosphere of “ancient-ness” and nobility she builds through her unique style. As the book itself states, it has “echoes going back a long, long way.” Cooper also does an excellent job of introducing elements of Celto-British mythology (such as Herne the Hunter) without making the story dry or boring. Finally, the level of descriptive language Cooper employs in this book is truly impressive: sentences match with the action they are describing in length and tempo; some of the similes even resemble kennings from Norse epic poetry. Overall, the quality of writing in this book is excellent and leaves very little to be desired. (10/10)
While the last book in the series (Over Sea, Under Stone) had no language or violence whatsoever, the same is not exactly true of The Dark is Rising. While it has no language, there are a couple scenes that do get a bit violent (most notably the scene where a character is thrown from a horse and breaks his back). Additionally, the protagonists are forced to combat the Dark throughout the book, resulting in scenes such as the one where Will seems to hear his mother calling for help (it’s actually an illusion), but cannot go and try to help her, as this will allow the Dark to enter the building. Some critics have also accused this book of being anti-Christian, however, while the characters do not really reference God or Christianity much, neither do they really attack it per se. Consider also that the premise of the book is very Judeo-Christian sounding (a force of absolute good fighting a force of absolute evil ever since the world was created). Readers should exercise their own judgement whether or not to read the book, based on these factors.
Due to its occasional archaic language, infrequent mild violence, and potential “scary” scenes, this book is recommended for readers from age 10 and up.