When Good Keeps Secrets: The Dark Is Rising

The Dark is Rising, the sequel to Over Sea, Under Stone, but written several years later, is recognizably by the same author, but so different in tone that it seems to be from a different series altogether. Indeed, the only links seem to be the returning character of Merriman Lyon, references to Arthurian and Celtic mythos, and a sense of the battle between good and evil. And although Merriman Lyon may have the same name, he is far more serious in this outing (not that he was a bundle of laughs in the last) and is now masquerading as a butler instead of a professor.

In fact, the entire social structure of the last novel has taken a significant downturn: instead of a wealthy family and artistic mother who can easily afford to spend several weeks renting a house and hiring a cook in Cornwall, we now have hardworking farmers and the family of a jeweler who, if not exactly starving, and certainly able to provide a merry Christmas for the family, also do not have a lot of extra cash on hand. Even the one well-to-do character also appears to have made some financial cutbacks. It’s the 1970s and taxes are high. The light hearted adventure tone is mostly gone, and the mysteries are of quite a different type. And most critically, magic, in its darker aspects, appears right in the first few pages, an integral part of this book, instead of something rather distant and unknowable and just part of the fun.

And one very clever twist: in this book, the Good side of the battle hasn’t always been, well, Good.

The Dark is Rising begins on a dark, magical note, as dark rooks—or, in American terms, ravens—appear to be, in the words of one of the characters, going batty, and seemingly innocent farmers start saying creepy things about Walkers being aboard and giving strange birthday presents of iron to the seventh son of a seventh son.

This son is Will, just turned 11, and about to permanently lose his childhood. As he soon learns, he is not only the seventh son of a seventh son—in itself magical—but he is one of the Old Ones, the last of them, in fact, humans of a sort, but ones who do not die and can shift back and forth in time and between magic and reality, and know that another world is out there. Quite a few of them have gathered in Will’s neighborhood, which almost seems to be a semi-retirement community for Old Ones, and they begin training Will in his power and his task: in this book, to collect the six signs listed in a prophecy, which together form a powerful object that can be used to turn back the Dark.

This is almost, but not quite, the setup for a quest story. Will doesn’t seem to have to do a lot of searching for the signs—in yet another contrast with the last book, where the children had to actively look for the grail and try to put clues together. Here, he more just has to grab the signs—although doing so is often difficult, requiring him to learn to focus and move past his fear and terror, all part of his sudden growing up.

And it is sudden. A frequent and valid critique of this book is that Will becomes an Old One all too quickly, accepting his destiny within a couple of pages. This is not to say that Cooper doesn’t provide any later character growth—Will needs to learn sorrow, needs to learn the weight of having power. And he does indulge in a moment of playing with his power, creating a fire, a moment that leads to danger and the lesson that just maybe playing with cosmic powers for entertainment is not the best idea. But his rapid character change creates another problem: as an Old One, Will is suddenly a lot less easy for a child reader to identify with, since the narrative makes it clear that he is no longer a child. And his siblings, with the possible exception of James, are all recognizably at least teenagers, if not older, and in any case are clearly secondary characters. This is fine, perhaps, for an adult reader, but as a kid, I wanted to read about, well, kids.

And a second quibble: the Dark villains are, well, just that. Dark. They have no other personality beyond that, and while they are effective opponents in the sense of being able to summon snow and all that, they never quite feel real. (Cooper would improve on this later in the series.) But then again, perhaps that’s the point here. Will and the Old Ones are fighting for the safety of the real world, but they aren’t precisely part of it, either.

But I can ignore the quibbles, partly because the language and images are gorgeous, and mostly because Cooper tries something interesting here: she has the good guys do something terrible, and it ends up catching up to them, badly.

Merriman Lyon has taken Hawkins, a loyal liege man and literally risked his life, for, as the liege man bitterly points out, the sake of a book. (It’s a bit more than that, of course: the book is a magical book that opens Will’s mind to the mysteries of the universe, the ocean, and power, but, still. It looks like a book.) When he realizes what has happened, Hawkins, hurt and betrayed, turns to the Dark Side, and into the tortured, miserable Walker.

Walker/Hawkins has a point: Merriman has treated him terribly. It’s not so much that Merriman hasn’t transformed him into an Old One, granting him immortality and power; that seems to be beyond Merriman’s power. (Seems. At this point in the book Merriman is not the most trustworthy figure.) It’s more that Merriman never told Walker/Hawkins the full story. For all of Merriman’s later attempts to claim that he never took the choices of Walker/Hawkins away, he hardly gave the man—nearly a son to him, according to both—all the information that would have allowed the servant to make a full choice. And, not to put too fine a point on it, Merriman showed that he was willing to let Walker/Hawkins die.

Make no mistake: Cooper is not making the argument here for shades of gray, but rather acknowledging that even the very best and wisest can make some mistakes, especially while focused on a central goal. It’s also the first humanizing touch she gives to Merriman in this book (here, a much more remote and cold figure than he was in the first book.) When Merriman realizes his mistake, the shock hits him hard; the outcomes of this mistake reverberate, badly, for the rest of the book.

Another highlight: the way the book continually shifts back and forth between the past and present, the real world and the other, but so naturally it never feels like an intrusion. And the constant returns to the mundane world, rather than feeling intrusive or dull, serve to fill two purposes: one, they emphasize just how strange the now changed Will feels in the real world, and two, they serve to remind Will and readers just what Will is fighting for: his family.

Which, incidentally, is one of the better parts of the book. Will’s siblings are by turns supportive, annoying, bossy and sarcastic, constantly teasing one another and Will. And they can, from time to time, be annoyingly perceptive: sure, one of Will’s sisters doesn’t want him to cover every window and door with holly for protection because that will involve too much cleanup work, but another one of his brothers asks very pointed questions, even as yet another sister annoys him.

And I suspect it’s in part that sibling annoyance that helps Will resist the Dark when they offer to trade his sister for the Signs. Will feels guilty; he wants Mary out of the power of the Dark; he is furious that they have taken her–but he isn’t quite willing to do anything to rescue her, which given that she’s been quarreling with her siblings throughout the text makes quite a bit of sense.

Mary, though, is not a highlight. She’s whining and annoying and unfortunately one of the more prominent of the (very few) female characters in the book, most of whom are fairly shortchanged here. Intentionally or not, the war between the Light and Dark feels like a very masculine war, something that Cooper would explore a little more in the next book.

Cooper provides some other delightful details here and there: the preparations for Christmas, a character reading—yes—one of Edith Nesbit’s books out loud (a nice tribute to Cooper’s predecessor); the merriment of Christmas caroling. This is an excellent book to read over Christmas.

Or at any other time. Like the first book in the series, I think it reads fine on its own—it took me years to hunt down any sequels, given its satisfying ending—but it also serves as a rich introduction to the rest of the series to come.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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