fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Susan Cooper The Dark is RisingThe Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Despite multiple awards and a talent that is up there with the best of the fantasy authors, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series is often overlooked by readers in general. A five-part series, it deals with the battle between good and evil as waged by the Old Ones, several contemporary children, a range of mystical objects, and figures from history and legend. It sounds like pretty generic stuff, but Cooper’s gift lies in the telling of the story, and manages to take these well-trod aspects of the fantasy genre and turn them into something truly memorable.

Like Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (the best series with which these can be compared) it is the second book that is the most famous, and in this case it shares its title with the name of the overall series. The Dark is Rising is the story of eleven-year-old Will, who discovers his heritage as the youngest of the Old Ones: guardians of the world who fight against the malevolent Dark for the well being of mankind. With his mentor Merriman, Will travels through the mighty Doors of Time to learn his craft and skills, and then go up against the Black Rider — the strongest disciple of the Dark.

All of this takes place from Midwinter’s Eve to the Twelfth Night after Christmas, as the two separate powers’ strength waxes and wanes. Will’s role as the Sign-Seeker means that he must discover the location of six magical stones representing different elements, and bring them all together to create the circle. As he searches his small village, the Dark releases its weapons against him: vicious rooks, an innocent-looking farm girl, a traitor, and finally a terrible snowfall that threatens the lives of Will’s family, and the rest of the village. And through all of this is the mysterious figure of a tramp that sulks in the snow, fearing and hating Will, and yet with a terrible sadness to him that Will cannot understand.The Dark Is Rising Book Series (5 Books)

Will himself is not without strength and allies, and he faces adversary with the amazing personality that Cooper has shaped for him: the soul of an ancient inside the body and feelings of a small boy. He is perhaps one of the most fascinating, three-dimensional characters of children’s fantasy literature, and has to be fully read to be appreciated.

Cooper infuses her work with threads of real folklore and legend, everything from the old Celtic gods to the “specialness” of a seventh son. Likewise, her language is simply stunning — she literally takes us from a fascinating description of a twig, to an invocation of a range of planets and stars overhead. She also has a gift for creating emotion, especially fear — Will’s experiences with the forces of the Dark and the penetration of the snow are wonderfully, chillingly created.

The previous story in this series was Over Sea, Under Stone, which featured three completely different children (who meet Will in the next book Greenwitch) in a setting that had much less emphasis on magical workings. In fact, when I first began reading this story I was initially rather confused and thought I’d picked up the wrong book. It does get off to a rather shaky start, with Will entering different worlds and times without the reader really knowing where he is, or how, or why. However, one must really read all of the books in order to gain the full picture of what’s going on, as there are foreshadowing images here that do not come to fruition till the final book. It pays to read this more than once — it’s one of those books that yields more information and detail each time.

Will’s family come across as clones of one another (there are slight differences, but not enough for me to be able to keep track of all the different siblings) but as a whole they are a cheerful, bickering, loving family: something indeed worth fighting the forces of Darkness for. Merriman Lyon, who is only character to appear in all five books, is as aloof, mysterious and grave as ever, and deserves a place among the great wizards of fantasy.

If you consider yourself a fantasy fan, then The Dark is Rising is must-read material. Beautifully crafted and endlessly fascinating, you should buy, not borrow this series.

Published in 1965. On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that — the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril. This is the first volume of Susan Cooper’s brilliant and absorbing fantasy sequence known as The Dark Is Rising.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.