I mean this literally—whenever I encounter a book where the forces of Dark (evil, snarling, often physically disgusting) face off against an army of the Light (usually well-groomed people in stately dress), my instinct is to dump the book in search of better reading material. My criteria for sci-fi and fantasy are the same as Jen’s, with one important addition: I need moral complexity.
Where’s the fun if your main characters are all Good or Evil? Dumbledore was ever so much more interesting when his reputation splintered in book 7. This isn’t to say there’s no place for heroes and villains, but it gets tedious (not to mention simplistic) when everyone on one side is constantly moral while the other side bristles with depravity.
I suppose that’s why I’ve always shunned Susan Cooper‘s The Dark is Rising series. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that they were the kind of books I “should” like. I tried, once, to read the first book Over Sea, Under Stone and couldn’t get past page 20. I also knew that book number two—The Dark is Rising—is about the fight between two sides called the Dark and the Light. Not helpful. Then I saw the disastrous movie trailer, and it sealed my fate…
…until a month ago, when I decided to give The Dark a fair trial. It won a Newbery Honor, after all, and it’s a classic of the canon. Maybe, like Lord of the Rings, it would overcome the moral absolutes with superior writing. And to my delight, that’s exactly what happened.
First, though, I’m going to get the plot out of the way: Will Stanton, a boy in an English village, wakes up on his eleventh birthday and finds that he is special. He begins moving back and forth between the real world and a magic realm where he’s endowed with the power of the Old Ones, warriors of the Light fighting to keep the world safe from the Dark. It’s Will’s task to unite six symbols of power and keep the powers of Dark at bay…
Just typing that was painful. It’s not Cooper’s fault: she wrote the book in 1973, and since then there have been countless (bad) fantasy takes on the pure-Light vs. cruel-Darkness plot, most of them involving a teenager and magical powers.
Against all odds, Cooper makes it work. The book moves along at a slow simmer, leaving plenty of time to savor the writing, which is both elegant and powerful. It reminded me of Susanna Clarke‘s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: both books deal with magic in a charmingly subdued manner. Instead of flashy lights and butchered Latin, Cooper weaves magic into the English landscape: a gray sky can spell dread, a group of rooks conjures horror, falling snow signals smothering gloom.
There’s a wonderful balance of reality and magic. In the real world, Will must deal with squabbling siblings (he has 7) and the rituals of Christmas. Somewhere between the caroling and tree decorating, Will gets intermittently transported into the magical world to train with his mentor Merriman. I love that Cooper never lets you get bored: by alternating between high fantasy and village life, she kept the book grounded. At one point, Will receives a magic Book filled with power. He reads it and immediately absorbs the knowledge of countless spells. Suddenly he can move the elements, fight, even kill. But as soon as the sequence ends, Cooper brings us crashing back to humanity:
Will closed the book, slowly, and sat staring at nothing. He felt as thought he had lived for a hundred years. To know so much, now, to be able to do so many things; it should have excited him, but he felt weighed down, melancholy, at the thought of all that had been and all that was to come.
Perfect. And barely a page later, Cooper hits home again when Will contemplates his mentor Merriman’s dark mood:
There was a strange tight note in Merriman’s voice, like sadness, but none of his new art could tell Will the emotion that put it there.
Wow. With those two passages Cooper has assured me that Will remains believably real. All the magic in the world can’t solve Will’s most pressing needs. Ironically enough, it’s this small moment with Merriman that almost destroys Will. Merriman’s “sadness” is the result of betrayal—one where Merriman betrays an ally. It’s a sickening sacrifice that turns someone into a pathetic Gollum-like creature (yay for moral ambiguity!), and this person gets my vote for most interesting character. His denouement is easily the most powerful note of the climax.
I’ve talked so far only about male characters, and that’s because the females don’t do much…Will’s mother and sisters flit through as bit characters. In the magical realm, there are a couple of powerful women but they seem distant, like stock figures of power. I never really cared what happened to them, but I felt, all the same, that I should care, as they’re on the side of good.
But I suspect other books in the series have better gender balance. And it’s a mark of how much I enjoyed The Dark is Rising that I’m willing to hunt down the sequel Greenwitch. If the writing is anything like The Dark, I won’t even mind any use of clichéd proper nouns…