Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review: The Dark is Rising

I last read this book in elementary school but this time I read it aloud to my family. Aidan dropped off after a while and started to play LEGOs but Sam really got into it, just like I remember.

The plot involves an 11-year-old who discovers he has special powers and is charged with collecting six "signs of power" made of elemental materials: iron, bronze, wood, stone, fire, and water. I think some nascent chemical impulse drove me to really like that plot.

Susan Cooper does an excellent job of getting the action going right away and slowly revealing some of what's going on. I say "some of" because a lot of things aren't really explained, and if I have one complaint in re-reading this, the plot itself is rather thin and noisy when you get down to it. If you start asking why -- why must the six signs be joined? what do they actually DO? -- then you often don't get an answer. Cooper avoids this by pretty much keeping the action running so fast that you don't really have time to wonder about how it all fits together. She really is stitching several disparate threads together of old stories and myths, and it works because British history itself is that kind of stitching.

My greatest disappointment is that because Cooper goes out of her way to talk about the balance of dark and light, there's no real reason for the Dark to be stopped; it usually comes down to a "there happens to be a barrier there that stopped the Dark" or "there's no magic in _____ (roads, water, etc.)". And then in the absence of magic, everything just works out, fate comes in like a deus ex machina bringing everything to its right place so that you wonder why there ever was any suspense in the first place. I mean, if the Dark keeps getting stopped by this random stuff then it seems like the universe is against the Dark ... I'd be pretty mad if that were the case for me.

I think it comes down to the fact that the philosophical monism that Cooper attempts to say runs her universe does not actually help her when it comes to telling a story. Nevertheless, the story is told well and has the mythic elements of quest that draw a young boy along. It looks like at least 4 of the 5 books in the series are about the "quest for X." Well, I'll get to see what Cooper's other books are like, because Sam is begging me to read the others. I hope they don't let him down!

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