“You and I are, shall we say, similar. We were born with the same gift, and for the same high purpose. And you are in this place at this moment, Will, to begin to understand what that purpose is. But first you must be taught about the gift.”
It’s four days before Christmas – Midwinter Day – and Will Stanton is about to turn eleven. His mind is full of Christmas carols, holiday cookies, and presents. He teases (and is teased by) his brothers and sisters. He prays for snow. He’s just an ordinary British kid…or so he thinks.
In fact, Will is about to learn that he is the last and youngest member of the Old Ones, a secret circle of immortal beings who work together to protect the world from the encroaching Dark. Even more, he is the Sign-Seeker; it is his predestined task to find the six lost Signs of Power – talismans of the Light representing the qualities of wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone – and return them to the Light’s keeping, where they will eventually play a crucial role in the final battle against the Dark. With his mentor, gruff Merriman Lyon, Will begins a search through time and space for the Signs, finding both allies and enemies in surprising and unlikely places. Meanwhile, a dangerous blizzard rages across England, and the closer Will gets to his goal, the more intense — and difficult to resist — the Dark’s onslaught becomes.
The Dark is Rising is actually the second book in Susan Cooper’s acclaimed Dark is Rising Sequence – Over Sea, Under Stone was published in 1965 and relates the adventures of the three Drew children, who will join Will on his various quests in future books in the series. But it’s in this book that readers learn, alongside Will, about what it really means to be an Old One. Among other things, he learns that the Old Ones are powerful beyond imagination, but still entirely fallible – he gets ahead of himself sometimes and makes stupid mistakes, and he can only watch helplessly as Merriman makes an error in judgment that leads to a devastating betrayal, the echoes of which will reverberate across time (in more than one direction). It would have been all too easy for Cooper to make the Old Ones a bunch of British Mary Sues, but she avoids that trap quite ably.
Although these books predate the Harry Potter series by some twenty years – the final volume, Silver on the Tree, was first published in 1977 – the two series are inevitably mentioned in the same breath, and the comparison is reasonable enough. Deep where the Potter books are broad, the Dark Is Rising sequence incorporates myth, legend, and archetype from the British Isles. They’re a bit slower-paced, as you would expect from books written in the 70’s, but there’s enough excitement to keep the reader interested throughout. Anyone who enjoyed Harry Potter will probably enjoy these books as well.
Unlike the Potter books, unfortunately, attempts to bring the Dark Is Rising series to the screen have been (to put it mildly) less than successful. Only one of the books has been filmed; The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising slunk into theaters in 2007 and slunk out in disgrace a few weeks later. I didn’t see it – I read a review that began with something along the lines of “Will Stanton is a fourteen-year-old American whose family relocates to England” and was all “Thanks for playing, but just no” – but it’s on the receiving end of some of the most savage reviews I’ve ever seen on the IMDb. People don’t just hate the thing; they hate it and they take it personally.
I suspect that’s because they love the books so much, and well they should. The Dark is Rising and its sequels are quiet classics, and although they’re children’s books, they can be understood and enjoyed by adults on an entirely different level (younger readers may not pick up on a lot of the mythology; older readers probably will). If you’re feeling bereft and adrift after seeing Deathly Hallows, Part 2 – or, if (as will be the case with some of my esteemed Geek Speaking colleagues) you’re suffering from a bad case of Potter Fatigue – these books are the perfect antidote.
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Published by McElderry, et al.
Release Date: 1973
Available in Paperback, Audio CD and Download and Kindle editions