Lost beneath the sea

I re-read Susan Cooper's Over sea, under stone and The dark is rising, the first two novels in the Dark is rising sequence in late 2012, but failed to review them at the time, probably because I was intending (but failed) to read the entire sequence. Having just finished the third novel Greenwitch, I think it's time for a review, just in case it takes me a while to get round to the last two!

In Over sea, under stone the Drew children holiday in Cornwall with their favourite eccentric uncle, Merriman Lyon, who is not quite what he seems. While there they become involved in a hunt for Celtic buried treasure. This will become of more significance than your usual Famous 5 in pursuit of smugglers tale, when the children discover that they are actually at the centre of an eternal battle between Good and Evil; a battle that their uncle has fought many times over. It's a well written children's adventure story with a twist. Hugely enjoyable, the children, especially, are written extremely well. It's got both great likeable "goodies" along with some ace "baddies". A fun read, well plotted, and a few chilling moments. Guaranteed to please the 11+ readership, along with a bit of a frisson up the spine.

The dark is rising, the second novel in the sequence is of a different order. This is, without a doubt, one of the great classics of children's fiction. It's connected to the first novel, but can be read without any foreknowledge (something that sadly is rather lacking in Greenwitch). The Stanton family are looking forward to a traditional Christmas in their Buckinghamshire village, but as the weather becomes unseasonably cold, Will, the seventh son of a seventh son, becomes aware that this is not going to be an ordinary Christmas, for the Dark is coming riding, and Will is about to discover that he is not who he thinks he is.

It's an extraordinary tale, beautifully told. A must read for this time of year. This was one of my favourite books as a child / young teenager along with such reads as The Midnight Folk and The sword in the stone. The dark is rising has many of the elements that make those tales so great, it manages to be both of its time but also has an unworldly feel to it. It's a brilliant, dark, magical book, that's unputdownable. If you haven't read it, you should; and if you know a child who hasn't read it, it should be on your Christmas present list.

It would always be hard to top the brilliance of The dark is rising, and this may be why I find Greenwitch a little disappointing. In the third novel of the series, Cooper draws together the threads of Will Stanton and the Drew children, an essential move for the rest of the series. Unfortunately the novel itself feels a little weak. Many elements from Over sea, under stone are re-used; and it also feels slightly derivative. Sure, there were elements in the first two tales that had their origin in other works but they grew from this and became uniquely themselves. In Greenwitch the apple stays firmly near the tree - I spotted The Wicker Man, Robert Aickman's short story Ringing the changes, even a hint of Dorian Gray. 

There's much to like about the novel, the Drew children are developed further, and Jane especially comes across as a very lovable character, but I was left feeling slightly disappointed. It's a short read, not taxing, and enjoyable enough. If you haven't read the earlier books, you will be rather lost reading Greenwitch, and will probably find it a rather disappointing experience. It's a more grown-up book in some ways than the earlier ones, I certainly felt that the horror level was higher. I would certainly not recommend this as being the first (or even the second) Susan Cooper you should read; but if you want to progress in the sequence I think it's probably essential reading.

Despite my reservations re Greenwitch I would heartily recommend the sequence. The dark is rising is one of the great fantasy canons of the twentieth century. How strange that within about 30 years we had the creation of Narnia and Middle Earth, a re-visit to the England of King Arthur and Camelot, and a modern-day Britain which combined an Arthurian quest with the battles of Middle Earth. All draw elements from elsewhere, all are unique and wondrous.


Aarti said…
I have this whole series on my audiobook wishlist to read but haven't gotten around to it yet. I don't know why, but I have this idea in my head that there are religious underpinnings (maybe I am confusing it with Narnia?) and that kind of turns me against it a bit. Plus, I never read it as a child, so I wonder if I lost that magic moment when it would mean so much to me to read.
Margaret Jones said…
Hi Aarti,
No they're not religious at all. Mainly rooted in Arthurian legend, but without the religion of the original (or of Narnia!). It's really worth starting with The Dark is Rising, as it's by far the best of the first three (and the least childish - in the nicest sense of the word). If that doesn't hook you, nothing will. Happy listening!

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