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Susan Cooper's books are the sort that immediately cause people to say "But aren't those for kids?"

Technically, yes. So is "The Hobbit," for that matter. And Susan Cooper's "Dark is Rising Sequence" has joined the elite shelf of timeless books that are technically for kids, but not necessarily JUST for kids. With her use of myth and folklore, rich language, and a time-spanning battle between good and evil, Cooper spins up a rare tale in her majestic prose.

"Over Sea Under Stone" features the three Drew children coming to stay with Merriman Lyon. In his attic, they find an ancient treasure map that leads to a hidden grail -- if they can only figure out what the map's writing and symbols mean. But they are not the only ones who are looking for the grail -- three sinister people are in pursuit.

"The Dark is Rising" shifts its focus elsewhere. On his eleventh birthday, young Will Stanton encounters the mysterious Merriman, and is told that he is the last of the immortal "Old Ones" who are fighting the forces of evil (known as the Dark). As the power of the Dark grows, Will must gather the six Signs that can help stop them -- and protect his friends and family from the Dark.

"Greenwitch" brings the four young heroes together. Will and the three Drew kids are brought to Cornwall, where the grail has been stolen. Jane is haunted by nightmares about the Greenwitch, a symbolic weaving of branches and leaves cast into the sea, and a sinister artist captures Barney. But the Greenwitch is not just a tangle of sticks -- it's alive with wild magic that neither Old Ones nor the Dark can control.

"Grey King" is the threat of the Dark. Will is recovering from an illness in Wales, where he meets a "raven boy" (an albino Welsh boy, Bran) and a dog with "eyes that see the wind" -- part of an old legend. Will must lead Bran into a closer connection with the Old Ones. But when an accident befalls the dog, Bran is angry with the Old Ones -- until the truth of his past comes to light.

"Silver on the Tree" brings the series to a climax. Will receives visions of the past, and a message from Merriman that the final battle between the Dark and the Light is about to come. Evil creatures (minks, specifically) are swarming near his house -- and the Old Ones, while almost ready, don't have the power of the Lady. He teams up with the Drews and with Bran to find the Lost Land.

Sure, fantasy incorporating old myth and legend is nothing new. People have been doing it for as long as the genre has existed. But Susan Cooper brings the idea of time-travelling immortals and ancient magic to life in this, and avoids the usual syrup and dumbing-down that most authors feel compelled to include.

Cooper's writing is detailed and atmospheric, although the first book is much more plainly written than the following four. She can switch instantly from lighthearted to mystical and back again, and her writing is heavy with description. Moreover, she takes the folklore and legends of Britain and interweaves them with Arthurian legend, giving the whole Arthurian story a new spin.

While some may not like the portrayal of good and evil as evenly matched, the strength of the Old Ones' determination is extremely invigorating. They're powerful, but still very human, able to make errors and feel sorrow. And there are lessons carefully interwoven about good and evil, about loyalty, compassion, redemption, and friendship. These sentiments are never gooey, just powerful.

As for the kids, Jane, Barney and Simon Drew are a little less endearing because they seem a little dated -- think E. Nesbit characters out of time. Will Stanton and Bran, however, have the qualities of timeless characters, both wise and ancient and yet still very young. And Merriman looms over it all as the all-seeing guardian, alternately forbidding and dignified or kindly and grandfatherly.

With its majestic prose and entrancing, otherworldly characters, the "Dark is Rising Sequence" is a remarkable piece of work, and one that deserves many rereadings. Outstanding.
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on March 30, 2000
This series of books made me want to be a writer when I grew up. I remember distinctly reading these books and realizing the power that authors have to create a world and populate it with living characters. Ms. Cooper has created a universe in which magic lives just under the surface of the "real" world--her theme, that the power of magic is accessible to believers, and that we have a responsibility to fight against evil in both the real and magical realms, continues to resonate with me and many other readers.
I highly recommend The Dark is Rising series to children and adults. It's for a slightly older audience than the Harry Potter series, and makes a nice next level for kids who want more.
I am thrilled that the series is still available and I am adding it to my collection in the hope of passing it on to the children in my life. That, and I'm going to re-read them myself-- they're just too good to pass up!
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on February 13, 2001
I first stumbled upon Susan Cooper's THE DARK IS RISING sequence when I was in sixth grade. I was required to read a Newberry Award-winning book and do a report, and the cover of THE GREY KING looked kind of cool, so I gave it a shot. Fifteen years later I still can't believe I haven't heard more about this series.
C.S. Lewis set the standard for children's fantasy literature with THE NARNIA CHRONICLES, and Susan Cooper has equaled Lewis' accomplishment in these books. In some ways, the stories are much better because Cooper's target audience is a bit older, wiser, and more mature. Evil characters are not always obvious in Cooper's world, nor are they always super-intelligent. Cooper weaves elements of Arthurian legend and Welsh mythology into modern day England in a way that tends to swallow the reader whole. Even as an adult I find these books rich and enjoyable; it is easy to forget that one is reading 'children's literature'.
Fans of THE NARNIA CHRONICLES or HARRY POTTER will find that THE DARK IS RISING is another series readers will enjoy no matter what their age may be. My one caveat would be to parents of young children: there are scenes in these stories that may not be appropriate for children under the age of 10 or so. As always, be aware of what your children are reading. Once your children have reached an appropriate age, however, I would highly recommend THE DARK IS RISING for both you and your children!
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on June 6, 2000
I first read this series when I was in grade school, and fell in love with the magic! I wished that I could have been one of the Old Ones, having incredible powers, immortality, and (because of these qualities) dangerous adventures. Nearly 15 years later, I was searching for a gift for a young relative in the family and found The Dark Is Rising series again. I made the purchase fully intending to give it away. That cousin never got the books. I just had to re-read them. And was enchanted once again!
The storyline is great for kids, as one of the main characters, Will Stanton is 11 years old. The magic is fantastic....one of the powers, the ability to make people forget, could definitely be useful. I can think of a couple of instances where I would have loved to use it on my parents! Traveling through time has similar benefits....
But this is not a series just for children. The themes of constant struggle between good and evil, and the means by which evil seeks to attract followers are well developed, with details older readers appreciate. The story about Hawkins is a great example. He is clearly used by both sides, and he makes choices that have hard consequences for himself and others. Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse, and his character demonstrates that people are not entirely good (deserving of extraordinary responsibility) or entirely bad (deserving of condemnation). There is an incredible attention to small details. You definitely pick these up with each reading. There is also enough familiar mythology/folk legend in the stories to make them not only believable, but feel like it is happening now. The series is wonderful. If you like imaginative, gripping stories, I highly recommend this series for adults and children!
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on July 2, 2001
When the Dark is Rising, Six shall turn it back, Three from the circle, Three from the track. Wood, bronze, iron, Water, fire, stone, Five will return and one go alone.
I am 32 now, and first read The Dark is Rising when I was 11. I am now buying the set for my 9 year old daughter. I can still remember the poems better than any I learned in class. The writing is so multi-faceted, so defined. Like Will being the seventh son of a seventh son, and Merriman Lyon being Merlin. Although I applaud JK Rowling for the way she has turned kids onto books with Harry Potter, this is far, far better, and was ahead of its time. If Susan Cooper had had the marketing clout that JK Rowling has, this book would be better known and more widely read. In a time when Celtic music and influences are at their height (think River Dance, the Corrs) these books are in their prime. As an adult, read this series before giving to a child. The magic and the writing will never leave you, they are truely classics. Start with The Dark is Rising, and read Over Sea..... as a prequel afterwards. Equally suitable for girls or boys.
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on July 23, 2000
I first read The Dark is Rising when I was 11, the same age as the main character. I had already devoured the Chronicles of Narnia and loved the genre. Reading that book was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. It is ten years later, and I have read all five books at least half a dozen times, and The Dark is Rising probably 25 or 30 times. I simply never tire of these amazing novels. They opened a whole world to me, full of Welsh and Cornish legends, magic, and so much more. Before there was Harry Potter, there were these novels. Having read J.K. Rowling's series, which is very nice, I can say with no hesitation that these books are a thousand times better. This series is a must-read for both children and adults. I cannot recommend it enough.
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on November 22, 2007
I am too old to have read these as a kid. I was pretty much a grown-up by the time they were published and never heard of them till recently.

I very much enjoyed them, but can't get my kids (10 and 16 year old boys) interested in reading them. The copies I checked out of the library did have smaller type than they prefer, and I also noticed that half of the series was in J Fict and half was in Young Adult. I asked about that and the librarian said it had to do both with content and reading level. The strange thing was, it wasn't the first half in J Fict and the 2nd half in YA but it seemed to almost jump back and forth and back again, but after reading it I could see that some of the stories are deeper and more complicated than others, and they don't progress in a linear fashion (each getting more complicated and mature than the last, like the Harry Potter books do).

These books do sort of start out slow. And there's another oddity, the introduction of the main character of the series in the second book. It's strange that he's totally absent in the first and then the second one doesn't mention the three children from the first book at all. Then a later book introduces still another main character and near the end we learn a surprising revelation about a character who had, previously, seemed very minor indeed. These are not your typical books, they are not predictable, and they are the type you can re-read and enjoy again and again. If you don't like them (or if you kids don't), wait a couple years and try them again.
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on February 17, 2006
I was given this set a few Christmases ago by my grandma. The covers looked mildly interesting, but I had other things to read. So it went on the shelf, sitting there for about a year.

Then, one night, I REALLY wanted to read but had nothing on hand. Sighing in an immensely theatrical way, I plucked OVER SEA, UNDER STONE off the shelf and sat down with it.

Far from being a boring or absurd story -- as I had sort of expected -- I was instantly swept up into the amazingly real, terrifying, and vivid landscape of the series, and learned a lot about King Arthur to boot. Upon finishing the book I snatched up THE DARK IS RISING and devoured it. Compared to THE DARK IS RISING, OVER SEA, UNDER STONE seemed a bit boring -- and it wasn't. That's how good the second one was! (It remains my favorite to this day; I loved the Signs, the setting, Will's personality...ah, to experience it freshly again...) Then I read Greenwitch, which was about the size of ten stacked pieces of cardstock, and then finished the rest.

People say these books have pagan themes and that Christians (like me) shouldn't read them. If there is one thing I hate more than anything, it is censorship, especially when The Churchy Folk (not to be confused with actual, caring Christians)start harranging you because you "read the wrong books". Most often, as with the case of Harry Potter (which does not deserve the hate that's been thrown on it AT ALL) the Churchy Folk have not bothered to read the "pagan book" themselves, assuming that since their cousin's uncle's stepson's grandfather's daughter, who runs An Obscure Christian Magazine, gave them a bad review of the book on the premise that it is unchristian, they decide that reading them will give them a one-way, irreversible ticket to Hell.

Sure.

Anyway, for Christians: These books do have a bit of a nonChristian viewpoint, but as a previous reviewer said, if you can't trust your kids not to turn away from God on the premise of a few sentences, clearly you have other, much bigger, problems. They are going to be saturated in atheistic propaganda all their life -- so what you should do is force them to challenge their faith early on. An unchallenged belief is feeble at best, but thinking deeply and coming up with answers on your own is crucial. Otherwise, what happens when a non-Christian challenges it themself with a question your child has never thought of before? And the walls came crashing down....

It's a great set of books. Read them, enjoy them, ponder them -- just don't take them too seriously. You'll be fine.

PS. I was asked their order in an email but couldn't get back, so here it is just in case:

1. Over Sea, Under Stone
2. The Dark Is Rising
3. Greenwitch
4. The Grey King
5. Silver On the Tree

Rating: Very Good
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on June 21, 2004
It's great to start to see Susan Cooper around the place again. With all of the Potter hype and the renewed interest in the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper deserves some time in the limelight for the outstanding Dark is Rising sequence. She's steeped in anglo-saxon mythology in much the same way as Alan Garner, but has created a much warmer and more accessible world than Garner.
The first book in the sequence was clearly originally written as a stand-alone book, but I would guess it planted seeds of ideas which took a decade to germinate when she picked up the story again. After the long gap, the next four books came quite thick and fast (coinciding with my childhood) and the writing of them is dynamic and exciting. The characters are fantastic, with the Merlin figure Merry being one of the most endearing attempts to create that arch-sorcerer. They are great fun from start to finish and are as intelligent, fresh and fantastic as when I first read them nearly thirty years ago (ouch!).
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on July 18, 2002
I first read The Dark is Rising as a child, and was ensnared by Susan Cooper's enchanting story of Will Stanton and his quest for the Six Signs, ensnared more deeply than any other book I had read before it. This book introduced me to fantasy and the wonder of the Middle Ages--the author uses a unique blend of fact, fantasy, and history in this series, with some Celtic lore, some proven facts, and just enough pure magic to make it enjoyable.
The books related the quest of six people to stop the world from being taken over by the Dark after the Light has reigned in peace for so long. The series begins with the three Drew children, Simon, Jane, and Barney, who are set upon a quest under the guidance of their forbidding Uncle Merriman, in Over Sea, Under Stone, in which their quest is to find the Holy Grail. In the Dark is Rising, Will Stanton is introduced and, again under the guidance of Merriman, initiated as the last of the Old Ones, the guardians of the earth. His task is to find the six Signs. In Greenwitch, a traditional Celtic tradition is brought to light by Jane, the only girl in the group, that befriends the lonely spirit and asks for her help in deciphering the inscriptions on the grail. The Grey King is the fourth book, and perhaps the most powerful, for it introduces Bran, a freakish albino who has never been accepted. Will befriends Bran and finds out that Bran is not only part of the prophecies, he is key to their plans, for they must awaken the Sleepers, warriors who will aid them to fight the Dark. And finally, the last book, Silver on the Tree, in which all of them are reunited: Simon, Jane, Barney, Will, Bran, and Merriman. In it they discover how far the reach of the Dark is--and how powerful the Light can be.
All of the books start with poems that prophesize the actions in the books and give convoluted clues as to what will be needed to stop the dark forces of the earth from taking over the world. Mentioned are the Holy Grail, the Six Signs, Pendragon, the Greenwitch, Sleepers, harps, an entire verse in Welsh--don't try to understand them; just enjoy them in their beauty. When you finish the books, you'll look at them again and suddenly understand everything.
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