1976: The Grey King (a travel advisory for Wales)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 5/5

It’s rare to find a fantasy series that improves as it goes on, but each book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series keeps raising the stakes with each sequel having more urgency and scope than the one that came before it. The Grey King, fourth in a five book series, focuses on Will Stanton and his adventures in the Welsh countryside as he becomes entangled in the Grey King’s mischief.

The Grey King, also called the Brenin Llywd, is more interested in causing chaos by preying on humanity’s weakness and anger than starting an all-out battle or apocalypse. Oftentimes, it feels like the bad guys in children’s fantasy are never very menacing and their threats never seem to have much heft behind them. The Grey King escapes this pitfall as there is always a dark feeling of foreboding that surrounds his actions – the paranoia surrounding the sheep killings, the gloomy weather on the mountain, and the grey foxes that go unseen by the townspeople. Caradog Prichard’s crazed actions make the most devastating parts hit closer to home as many readers can probably relate to the loss of an animal or pet, and it is ultimately human emotions that end up being the real evil.

This book feels more intimate and darker than the ones that came before it, as it focuses solely on Will and his new friend, Bran. While Will had previously grown into his powers as an Old One, he starts this book in a place of weakness, having lost some of his strength and memories to a bout of hepatitis, which makes him more relatable and human than ever before. Isolation affects all the characters, as Will must survive his trials without the help of his mentor Merriman, who is only tangentially involved in the storyline for the first time in the series. Will is mainly left to his own devices, forced to learn a new geography, find new allies, and understand the Welsh language, which makes him an outsider in a new, unknown and treacherous place.

The characters of Bran, Cafall and John Rowlands are all welcome additions to the series. Bran’s connection to the Arthurian myth is slowly teased throughout the novel as he learns more about his family history. He gets the toughest character journey in the book as all the horrible stuff happens to him, yet his relationship with his father ends up being poignant and touching as he learns several hard truths about his past. Additionally, Cafall’s loyalty to his master is used to great effect, as well as John Rowland’s human understanding of the real battle that is going on around him – even though he has no special powers himself.

Susan Cooper created a vivid world with some memorable scenes that really stay with you. The scenes of Will and Bran’s riddle game in the mountain, Cafall’s chasing of the grey fox and its aftermath, and the riders rising out the lake have all stayed with me since my first reading of this book as a child. Additionally, I’m always wanting to travel to Wales after I read the book since the descriptions of the countryside are so magical and beautiful. I would definitely recommend The Grey King to anyone who loves fantasy or the Arthurian myth.

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