The Dark is Rising Series, by Susan Cooper
Number of books: Five. In order, the series runs as follows: Over Sea, Under Stone; The Dark is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; Silver on the Tree. But the books are strong enough to read out of order and as individual adventures. They were first published 1965 -1977.
Availability: All five books are still in print. My first copies were published under the Puffin label, but the most recent editions of the whole series are under the Red Fox imprint from PRH. You can also get a Vintage Children’s Classic edition of book 2, The Dark is Rising. The books are widely available second-hand and there’s an audio CD. Run screaming in the opposite direction if anyone tries to make you watch the horrible film adaptation. (Jim: I NEVER interrupt these features to offer my own thoughts, but I really REALLY have to stress that this is excellent advice.)
The premise: Good versus evil amidst the folklore of the English and Welsh countryside. For centuries, the Light has fought to protect the world of men from the unrelenting onslaught of the Dark. Now the final battle is approaching, and the fate of the world lies in the hands of five children, guided by the enigmatic Merriman Lyon. Before Midsummer’s Eve, they must beat the Dark and retrieve Things of Power (the Circle of Signs, the Grail, the Harp and the Crystal Sword), or risk the Light being thrown out of human time forever.
Why I really like it: The first book I read was The Dark Is Rising. I was 11, the same age as Will (the protagonist), and I can still remember the spine-tingling moment I spotted the book in my primary school. The Dark Is Rising is set in suburban southern England, but the way Will’s everyday life becomes mingled with Arthurian myth and ancient folklore (Herne the Hunter and Wayland Smith are both in there) made the story simultaneously relatable and spellbinding. Like those of us waiting for our letter from Hogwarts a few years down the line, I could almost imagine that I might be revealed as one of the ‘Old Ones’, and pitched into a world of magical battles and time-travel. The real world settings of the books are brilliantly evoked; every time I read them, I believed magic could be happening right here, right now.
Best books: I have two favourites. The Dark is Rising is fascinating because we see Will discovering and learning to use his powers in his quest to recover the Signs. The midwinter/Christmas setting is particularly compelling: it’s a great book to read in December. The Grey King is set in Wales (around Aberdyfi) and introduces Bran, a teenage boy with mysterious parentage. With looming mountains, lake-dwelling monsters and possession, it has moments of real heart-stopping menace.
Who will it appeal to: the series as a whole is pitched towards MG or the younger end of YA, but the stories are magical enough to appeal to anyone who likes their fantasy set in the contemporary world. Sara Crowe’s Bone Jack has a similar sense of the deep-running roots of English/Welsh mythology.
Other books by the same author: Susan Cooper has written a lot: fiction for children and adults, picture books, non-fiction. King of Shadows and Victory are both enjoyable time-slip adventures.
Thank you for a fabulous piece, Katharine! Also want to second the recommendation for Bone Jack which is INCREDIBLE!!