And so to volume 4...

View of Llyn Cau and Cader Idris.
Photographed by NotFromUtrecht
CC BY-SA 3.0
I've been trying to get through Susan Cooper's Dark is rising sequence for some time, having read the first three novels as a teenager, but never made it completely to the end. The reason for this probably lies in my last review of the sequence, where I delighted in the first two novels but found the third, Greenwitch, rather lacking.

Volume 4 in the sequence - The Grey King, sees Cooper back on form with a dark tale of nasty goings-on in the Welsh hills. Will, the hero of Dark is rising returns again, and we're introduced to Bran, the albino Welsh boy, who will play an important part in the rest of the sequence. The novel was considered so good at the time it was published that it won the prestigious Newbery medal for children's fiction (The Dark is rising had previously been awarded Honor Book).

I don't think it has aged as well as Dark is rising which for me still retains all of its power. Grey King is a slightly uneasy tale about belonging, relationships and growing-up set against a supernatural background, which still makes it clear that the greatest damage in the world is caused by the way people treat each other.

Although there's much to admire in this novel, it didn't quite work for me. I found the fantasy elements rather overblown. Wales, I quite agree (of course I would) is a magical country, but there was a sentimentality about this that made me feel quite uncomfortable. Perhaps most importantly in terms of the book as a whole, it had some of the same failings as Greenwitch. Although it would be possible to read the novel as an independent unit, it would be almost impossible to work out Will's place within The Dark is rising's universe without having read the previous books in the sequence.

A must-read as part of the bigger sequence, there were some elements in the book that were well handled, especially those relating to loss and belonging. Bran's love for his dog, Cafall, shines through, and (like Georgette Heyer and Enid Blyton) Cooper is excellent when portraying animals. I also loved the relationship between Bran and his adoptive father, Owen, a beautiful portrayal of love and coming to terms with loss. These two elements elevated the book for me, despite some of its failings. I don't think it's as good as The dark is rising, but it's still a gripping read. Best read while looking towards the Preseli Hills and Cardigan Bay.


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