Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Grey King (The Dark is Rising #4) by Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper is a terrific writer and I find it interesting how fantasy books have evolved since the 1970's when this series was published. While her books come across as too simple and childlike for older reviewers, they are an excellent study of world building in the fantasy genre, creating magical systems, characters with a quest, having an older mentor for the young heroes, a Dark Lord, and the struggle between good and evil. Granted it isn't as complex as much of the high fantasy available today, but it is accessible for young readers and is an engaging series.

Will has been sick with hepatitis and is recovering at his aunt's farm in the mountains. He must wake the Sleepers, who are like the Knights from the Round Table, in order to battle the Dark in a climatic end between good and evil. Will must find the gold harp (and no he doesn't climb a beanstalk) and gets help from his albino friend, Bran. Their friendship is forged through adventures and loneliness and the two can count on each other even after they have an argument. The twist regarding Bran's ancestry was a plot highlight.

Will isn't developed as a character much, but is more like an Old One than a young boy which makes him somewhat distant. He is focused on the quest and has compassion and understanding beyond his years when dealing with others. Merriman is absent for the most part and Will does this quest solo. John Rowlands plays the part of the wise mentor versus Merriman and there is an interesting conversation between him and Will regarding the fanaticism of following good or evil. John reminds Will to not forget his humanity and it is a good reminder that fanaticism for good can actually be evil. Just think of terrorists who are fanatical in their belief that murdering people is for "good."

The explanations of Welsh language and culture reminded me of living overseas. Will catches on quickly to the language and it is obvious the author is fluent in Welsh. Susan Cooper grew up in Europe and moved to America and she said her homesickness fueled writing these books. The setting is her grandparents farm and the details Cooper uses make the mountains and lake easy to picture in one's imagination. 

I preferred "The Dark is Rising" moreso than "The Grey King" because  I was more engaged with Will's internal journey and the amalgamation of myth and mythologies from all over the world that didn't focus on one myth, but blurred them into this odd, delightful mix that was unique in and of itself. "The Dark is Rising" (book 2) also reminded me of "A Country Doctor" by Franz Kafka. Not the content so much as the creation of a dreamlike state that connects with reality. Kafka's language is more fragmented but the ghostly horses, recurring motif of the Hunt, and the way the sentences gallop had me comparing imagery to "The Dark is Rising."  Books "speak" differently to different people and at different times in life. "The Grey King" is more traditional following the monomyth or hero's journey. I found that I could predict too much of the plot in "The Grey King" and it sapped the tension out of some action scenes. I also thought the ending was abrupt. It's setting up for the sequel, but it seemed too sudden. I think young readers will like this story the best out of the five books in the series because of the straightforward adventure and quest.

The good and evil in this series books is black and white making it more childlike and less complex than fantasy stories being produced today. There is no exploration of the gray areas with complex villains. Mr. Prichard is the closest we come to seeing a man who has chosen ill-will toward others and nurses his internal anger toward those he feels have wronged him to the point that it is like a sickness rotting his soul. The simplicity makes it good for young readers because it is less scary; however, it does take out quite a bit of tension. When Will is on his quest you know that he will be successful and the answers will just come to him. Some reviewers complain this makes the plot artificial but it also makes it less frightening because of a built-in safety cushion. While I am enjoying these books, my adult side wants them more fleshed out and complex. I can understand those that love the series and those that don't. You decide. They are definitely well-written and worth a try.

4 Smileys

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