The Grey King by Susan Cooper: A new twist on old legends
Updated: Apr 19
Fourth book in the The Dark Is Rising series
Overall rating: 9/10
Quality of writing: 10/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): some
Age level: 10 and up
When Will Stanton travels to Wales to recover from a severe illness, he quickly becomes entangled in a series of events which have the potential to change the outcome of the looming battle between the Light and the forces of evil known as the Dark. Joined by the mysterious Bran (an albino boy with inexplicable powers) and his dog Cafall, Will sets out on a quest to find the golden harp of the Light and defeat the Grey King, an immensely powerful Lord of the Dark. Borrowing heavily from Arthurian legend (even more than other books in the series), The Grey King is an exciting and well-written adventure reminiscent of the works of British author Stephen Lawhead; and one that nobody should miss out on.
This book’s conflict centers mainly around the search for the golden harp, then later around Will and Bran’s efforts to defeat the Grey King. While these may seem to be two unrelated conflicts, the book does a good job of explaining how they relate (the harp is necessary to wake the six Sleepers, who will drive the Grey King away) and overall, the reader gets the impression of one plot arc. The plot is quite slow-paced in places, but these do alternate with sections of fast-paced action; some readers may not enjoy this book as much because of this “back-and-forth.” However, the plot overall is well-written and merits a 9 out of 10.
Of the two main protagonists (Will and Bran), Bran gets by far the more development as a character (which is only fair, since Will has appeared in two other books in the series already). Throughout the story, the reader sees Bran change from a boy who knows little of the ancient battle between the Dark and Light, to a veritable warrior who has understood the Dark for what it is and is ready to fight it. On the contrary, Will doesn’t seem to have changed much since the events of Greenwitch, nor does he change particularly much over the course of this book. Cooper portrays the villains (the Grey King and his human ally, Caradog Prichard) convincingly and shows the reader just enough of their actions and backstory to show that they are really, truly “evil” without adding gratuitous language or violence. On the whole, Cooper’s characters are excellent and deserve a 9.5 out of 10.
While the plot of this book is mostly easy to follow (although younger readers may be confused by certain twists), the style can be difficult at times, incorporating archaic vocabulary and some less-than-simple descriptive language. As this book is set in Wales, characters also frequently use snippets of Welsh, which may confuse readers who don’t have a translator handy. Overall, this book is a nice challenge for readers who are okay with some archaic words. (5/10)
Quality of writing
Cooper does an outstanding job of adding descriptive language and imagery to this book. For example, a valley is described: “great slopes rose on its eastern side, swooping up into the sky bare and grey, treacherous with scree.” Throughout the book, Cooper uses descriptions like this to build the atmosphere of the story and allowing the reader to imagine they are actually there. Cooper also has an admirable attention to detail: all the Welsh expressions, geography, and customs are correct (as far as I could determine). Overall, the quality of The Grey King is truly impressive and merits a 10 out of 10.
While this book is not entirely different from the rest of the series, it does incorporate more mature issues and some relatively mild language. Probably the most problematic element for many readers would be the scene in a story a character tells where Caradog Prichard, the main human antagonist, tries to abduct a young woman who has been brought into modern times by Merriman. Apart from that, there is one instance where Caradog Prichard calls one of the protagonists a “bastard” (but that’s the only real language in the book). Overall, this book does have some content that should be considered carefully before reading, and parents should certainly exercise their own judgement on whether to give their children this book. (4/10)
While the style of The Grey King is not significantly more difficult than that of the rest of the series, it does deal with some slightly more mature issues and incorporates one instance of mild language. Overall, this book is best for readers over the age of 10.