Years after writing her The Dark Is Rising sequence, Susan Cooper once again drew upon Welsh mythology to create a new fantasy novel saturated with heavy language and images, Seaward. Unlike her earlier series, Seaward is most definitely a standalone novel. But I am not certain that this is the best place to start reading Cooper, even as I will immediately contradict myself and note that in Seaward, Cooper counters some (not all) of the criticisms of The Dark Is Rising series, and readers with quibbles or problems may well prefer this book.
Let me explain.
Seaward does not have exactly have much of a plot. Rather, it is the story of a journey that quite often feels like a dream. Westerly and Cally, the main characters, have no idea where they are, only that they are in a land that mirrors our own, filled with strange sights and people and giant talking insect-like creatures, and that they must head west, to find the sea. Some of the people they encounter are actively helpful, and some want to trap them in this land, but they do not actually meet many people: this is a land, largely, of fierce quiet. It is also the land of Tanaris, or Death.
But although Westerly and Cally are traveling through and to the lands of the dead, but they are not actually dead — yet — and thus do not precisely belong in this land. They have slipped in — quite by chance, one character argues, not altogether convincingly — because both have a connection to magic and death. Westerly’s mother, now dead, knew something of magic, and was able to give her son a surprisingly helpful prophecy. (I’m so used to prophecies in fantasy fiction turning out to be unhelpful or misinterpreted that it was rather a shock to find a useful one.) Cally has webbed hands from her selkie heritage. And Cally’s parents are dead, although she is not at first consciously aware of this: rather than accepting the reality of their deaths, she has visualized a beautiful woman taking both of them away, on separate trips, to the sea. This is one reason why Cally is willing to travel seawards, and a truth she must encounter as she journeys.
Along the way, Cally and Westerly fall in love, in a rather sudden but beautifully handled subplot. And that in turn leads to more decisions: Westerly is eager to continue on, to the blessed isles of the dead, so that he can meet his father, and Cally is not quite ready for that yet. She sees the selkies, and wants to live just a little longer.
Seaward is filled with beautiful stark image after beautiful stark image, so much so that the book almost begins to feel heavy after a time (and it is not a long book.) The great chess battles of life and death; the selkies; a living darkness; a huge talking insect that is not actually an insect, dragons, and more fill the pages; this is a book that rewards rereading, just to see which images you missed, or potentially misinterpreted, the first time. Because, as you might have gathered, this is not exactly a straightforward plot or journey: rather, it is a metaphor for grief and death, and the entwined relationship with life and death. This may be the land of Tanaris, and Death, but she has not been able to keep Lugan, or Life, out of it, or keep his people from entering.
I am particularly enthralled by the description of the different fates awaiting the dead: the journey to the sea, endless sleep and rest between the bright stars, or an eternity of building meaningless halls. It’s not quite the Christian heaven, purgatory and hell, especially since Cooper’s hell of wall building is slightly closer to purgatory, and the spirits who drift out into the stars seemingly have no way to return.
Things I am less fond of: showing Death as “petulant,” Cooper’s word, not mine. I suppose here Cooper may be thinking of the randomness and unfairness of death, that always seems to strike the wrong people. But the word choice seems all wrong here, especially against Cooper’s other descriptions of the terrifying yet beautiful Lady Taranis.
The oddness that the dead all must give their names and the name of their home country, in English, before continuing on to the isles of eternal youth. In English. As someone who has lived in more than one country, and who has friends currently from and living in other countries, I wondered what would happen to people who identified with more than one country — my grandfather, for instance, born and raised in Germany who spent his adult life and died in the United States. I’m not entirely sure why the dead are concerned with nationalities, or why they necessarily need to be sorted into separate islands after death, which if not outright stated is strongly implied. And what happens to people that marry someone from another country? Do they travel between islands?
This is not entirely an idle question. Susan Cooper was born and educated in the United Kingdom, but later emigrated to the United States, so she was aware of living in two lands. Indeed, although this is a minor point of this book, part of Seaward is about the difficulty of adjusting to a strange land, of learning its new rules, which is why I found this sudden insistence on citizenship odd.
And like The Dark Is Rising series, the book’s beauty ends on an aggravating note — if a slightly less aggravating one. Because at the end, Cooper gives Cally and Westerly a choice: they can stay in the land of the dead, and take a ship out to the islands of the dead, and find contentment, and never age — and never see their love grow up.
Or, they can go back to their world, be separated, and, once again, forget everything.
Cooper does soften this, a little — if Cally and Westerly return to their world, they will eventually meet up again and remember. And, he promises that all of the little things they have learned will linger in the back of their minds, to give them strength. But, the important thing is, they will be immediately returned to their grief and fear, with no memory of the healing process that they just went through, until they meet up again.
The two decide that they have no need for contentment and wisdom, and choose life and grief instead. This may indeed be the wiser choice — as Lugan points out, life happens once, and death happens forever. But, perhaps because I had just finished rereading The Silver on the Tree, I found myself choking on yet another example of Cooper using the convenient amnesia trick.
In this case, I find it not only unnecessary — Westerly and Cally may not be Old Ones, but they are clearly magical creatures in their own right, even if Cally decides to turn from her selkie heritage — but actively cruel. Magical and strange though this journey was, it was also their mourning period, their time for learning that yes, life goes on, even in death. And after all they have endured, their reward is to be plunged back into grief again.
And even that I could accept: life is like that, after all, with a greater or lesser grief following another, and sometimes, just when you think that you’ve put a great grief behind you, it wells up again, choking you. But in this case, Cooper is plunging her characters back into the same grief, not a new or returning one. Forgetting magic and each other gains them nothing. (At least in theory, the forced amnesia in The Silver on the Tree keeps those characters sane.) And even the assurance that Westerly and Cally will meet up again does very little to assuage that. Part of processing grief, after all, is learning how to remember it, and forgetting is not as simple as stepping through a door.
Mari Ness would just like to repeat, again, that if she ever steps into a magical land, she wants to remember it later. She lives in central Florida, where she does get to see and remember the magical flights of great herons.