The Dark Is Rising Sequence - Susan Cooper
Over Sea, Under Stone
The Dark Is Rising
The Grey King
Silver on the Tree
I'm getting a bit tired of reading crap. The stack of unread books is not getting any smaller, but Otherland and the Higson books have drained much of my enthusiasm for exploring dangerous new territory. So, I'm temporarily back on familiar ground to remind myself what good stories look like. This is a series of Young Adult books that I first encountered at the age of about 10, and happily snapped up the omnibus edition when I spotted it a few years ago. I'm pleased to say that they are just as good as they ever were.
The first book is probably the weakest - it's a Famous Five-like adventure where three children and a dog search for the Holy Grail in Cornwall. This may be a slightly more supernatural angle than Blyton ever used, but the principles are the same: plucky children, secret passages, treasure maps, oblivious parents and menacing bad guys. Fortunately, the second book more than makes up for this. From the very start, with its sinister images of rooks wheeling in a bleak December sky, a dark scuttling tramp and a strange warning from the farmer, it's clear that this book is going to be much darker and more interesting than the previous one.
"The Walker is abroad," he said again. "And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining."
The three children from Over Sea, Under Stone do not appear in this book - instead, the main character is Will, youngest in a large Buckinghamshire family, who finds he has come into strange powers on his 11th birthday. As part of the circle of Old Ones, it is his task to gather the six Signs of Light for the battle against the Dark. This is no Harry Potter tale of wizard school and broomstick rides, but an intelligent journey through the old rituals of winter and the dark side of folklore, and stands up well against any adult fantasy on a similar theme.
Greenwitch goes back to Cornwall, and unites Will with Simon, Jane and Barney from the first book. This is a lighter and more straightforward book than the previous one, but is saved from Blytonness by the rituals of the Greenwitch, a springtime offering to the sea, and the hints of the sea's own chaotic magic which threatens the plans of both the light and the dark. The ending is a little trite, but luckily the quality of the series picks right back up again in the final two books.
The Grey King and Silver on the Tree are both set in Wales, and link together all the glimpses of Arthurian myths with the final battle against the Dark. Cooper returns to the wonderfully sinister tone of the second book, as the final artifacts are gathered and the battle-lines drawn. While the idea of some children saving the world is a little hard to swallow, it's sensibly arranged for the most part, and disbelief hardly gets in the way at all.
If you missed out on this as a child, it's not too late to read it now. If you've already read it, I can pretty much guarantee that you won't be disappointed with a revisit. This is a great book and deservedly a classic.