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Muddled, but Enjoyable
on July 18, 2008
(Some Minor Spoilers below.)
The Dark is Rising sequence is one of those ubiquitous book series that all children seem required to read, and although I had it on my "to-read" list, I never got to it as a kiddo. So, when I saw this nice boxed set I thought it was my chance to catch up with a series I had neglected.
Now I wish I had read it when I was younger; I think I would have found them more entertaining. As it is, I feel that the series is average. This isn't to say that singular books weren't exceptional, but that the whole is not greater than its parts.
The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, is my favorite of the five. I would easily give it 5 stars. It had me on my toes throughout! The children were sympathetic, realistic, and interesting characters; the plot, entertaining; the tension, quite real. For the first time in a long time, I wondered if the little heroes could pull through all right. Of course, the jaded adult in me said, "Of course they can! It's a children's book!" But this book is so well written, so entertaining--like "The Goonies," or a child's Indiana Jones--that I couldn't help but throw my cynical disposition to the wind and just enjoy the ride.
The second book, The Dark is Rising, I was not so fond of. It reveals Will, the last of the Old Ones, and his mission to find all of the Signs necessary to stop the Dark in the final battle. In my opinion, this is where the series gets awkward. At first I was excited for Will, who finds out he is capable of great things and can set objects on fire with just a word (which I think everyone wants to do sometimes). The Dark seemed doubly sinister--the Dark Rider was a downright thrilling villain, and the Dark attacks people Will holds dear, controls the weather, and engages in terrifying skullduggery.
And yet, as the story progressed, it seemed Will became less and less a character I cared for, and more and more static and uninteresting. I didn't understand, and still don't understand, the limits of an Old One--what they can and can't do in our world, and what laws govern them in general. Furthermore, the Dark--this supposedly terrifying, very powerful force--seems incapable of really touching Will himself, a boy who has not completely grown into the power of an Old One. I found myself wondering if the Dark could really do anything at all, or if the author gave them all this "power" for show and no brains to go with it, for their powers and plots all came to naught with what seemed little effort. I couldn't help but compare them to the villains in the first book--villains who were terrifying precisely because they could be anybody, anywhere, working in broad daylight just as well as behind the scenes. In a way, this made the fear more visceral and brought it home to the real world--the Dark could be the hobo in the street or, just as easily, your neighbor. This is lost when Ms. Cooper transforms the Dark into a bogeyman.
A final problem: Ms. Cooper brings up old legends without any backstory, which I would have really appreciated (as I am not an Arthurian aficionado). A little blurb in the back of the book would have been perfect.
When I moved on to Greenwitch, and realized Will and the Drews would join forces, I looked forward to it. Will then proved himself to be an annoying, pretentious little twit in severe need of kicking. Merriman told the Drews they were necessary, but as the book progressed I wasn't sure why--it seemed that what the Drews did, anybody could have done. Although I enjoyed Jane's larger place in the narrative, and the ending was very satisfying, the Drew children ended up "tools," which is really unforgivable. This book also introduced a regretful element that Ms. Cooper abuses: making people forget the incredible things they have seen. Yes, this was done in The Dark is Rising, but I felt it was done for a good reason; it was to protect Will's family and the people in his community, and I had the feeling that Old Ones were to remain absolutely undetected at all times (which was reasonable). Here, it was not done for anyone's safety, and rather, seemed completely indiscriminate. "No, we can't have you Drews seeing Will and Merriman jump off a cliff and float away. I mean, sure you guys know about the fantastical Dark and all, but we can't trust you with any more, even though you helped us find the Grail and Simon saw some creepy supernatural thing happen to Barney and Jane is talking to a nasty spirit in her dreams."
The Grey King picks up, and is the second book in the series that I would give 5 stars to. Will becomes capable of making mistakes, actually manages to forget something, and is generally an interesting fellow. The new character, Bran, was equally as fascinating. The story picked up the same sharp tension that was so wonderful about the first book, and I enjoyed it the whole way through. I didn't completely understand the Arthurian elements, but that was all right; it was still an awesome read. The Grey King himself, and his horrible foxes, were delightful foes. This book would make for a fantastic movie.
Silver on the Tree was my least favorite in the series and brought to a head all of the problems plaguing the series. Ms. Cooper was just too vague and arbitrary. Why were some choices bad and some choices good? I'll never know. Why did they do this and not that? Heaven knows why. WHY did she take a character I love and turn them to the Dark? Why, why, why does she make the Drews and Bran forget everything at the end? When Bran tried to give Jane his green pebble I wanted to cry. It's like Ms. Cooper utterly undid any sort of character development that may have gone on in the entire narrative. All the elements that could have made this book satisfying--Bran meeting his father and realizing his destiny--might as well have never occurred. Sure, the Lost Land was all sorts of wonderful fun; sure, the Mari Llwyd was deliciously terrifying. But it doesn't make up for what seemed to be a storyline thrown together at random and a world whose rules I never quite understood.
Long ago, I realized that a book can only be as good as its villains. I sometimes wonder if Ms. Cooper really thought through what the Dark was responsible for... what it really meant to banish it, and what it meant to have it in the first place. Because it's when she dives into the supernatural, and what being an Old One really means, and how Old Ones relate to the world, that the plot, characters, and Arthurian legend start to seem muddled, forced, and rushed. Two huge questions remained for me at the end of this series: why was it important to banish the Dark if evil still dwells in the heart of man? What was so dangerous about it in the first place?
My final word: get these books at the library, and read them while you're young. Maybe there's something you'll see that I can't anymore.