The Dark is Rising series encompasses a young boy named William Stanton's maturation in a compelling quest to destroy the Dark and make the world a safer place.
Susan Cooper has won a number of awards in English literature (including a Newbery Award twice), but her work is not quite as highly appreciated here in the United States. Although the series is mostly set in England and delves into Wales only briefly (during one of the later novels, The Grey King), the topic of the struggle between good and evil is one that anyone can enjoy. The dialogue is a bit dense for preteens, but the books are appropriate for people from early teenage to young adult years. American readers are missing out on this masterfully composed and vividly detailed story.
The second and most action-packed novel of The Dark is Rising series is The Dark is Rising. This novel contains the essence of the series, and was written with a slightly older audience in mind than Over Sea Under Stone, the previous and first novel. In The Dark is Rising, the protagonist Will Stanton, who has lived an ordinary life in an extremely large family, discovers on his eleventh birthday that he is a member of the Old Ones, an ancient order of the Light committed to vanquishing the Dark. He is gradually guided through his task by older, more experienced Old Ones, and learns that he is charged with finding Six Signs in order to thwart the plans of the Dark.
In depicting Will's journey, Susan Cooper creates a magical world out of a typical mundane farming family and region. The simple, unadulterated manner in which she depicts "magic" is reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series in that Cooper leaves a great deal to the imagination. Elaborate spells and magical objects' properties are not explained in the complete manner that readers are familiar with through J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series; imagery is described by Cooper and left up to the reader to interpret. This is a strength of Susan Cooper's writing style, and allows her to project ideas strongly into the reader's mind. It also gives the novels continuing readability. Cooper spends a good deal of time describing intriguing objects such as the Signs Will carries and the strange tribal mask worn by Herne the Hunter in the closing scenes of the novel. Herne is a ghost of English folklore characterized by antlers, and he hunts on horseback. Other allusions to English folklore exist as well, including one point in the novels when one character realizes that guide and companion Merriman Lyon is actually the ancient wizard Merlin; King Arthur's son the Pendragon also makes a guest appearance late in the series.
Susan Cooper displays a flair for poetry within the series as well. A haunting verse appears within the novels now and again, and summarizes the journey facing the Old Ones. The first two stanzas of this poem, shown below, describe the mission of the second novel, The Dark is Rising.
When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.
Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning, stone out of song;
Fire in the candle-ring, water from the thaw;
Six Signs the circle, and the grail gone before.
The other books continue the story of The Dark is Rising and introduce new characters and locations. The fight against evil continues throughout the book, and involves betrayal, dark prose, struggle, victory, defeat, and perseverance as just a few constant themes. The tone of Cooper's novels shows a remarkable ability to depict dreadful evil in a similar manner as Tolkien, albeit with a much lower death toll. Cooper has written a number of other notable books (many for younger audiences), but The Dark is Rising series continues to be her masterpiece. All of Cooper's books fired my imagination when I read them as a child of about Will's age, and they would make a fantastic gift to anyone with an appreciation for well-written literature. Below is a picture of Herne the hunter, who gained the antlers of a creature with the help of some sorcery after it nearly killed him. Susan Cooper was born in 1935 in England, and today resides in the United States.