Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Reviews: The Grey King

The Grey King
by Susan Cooper
This book was a gift from my maternal aunt all those years ago. It's something I like to pull out and re-read or just skim from time to time. It always brings back good memories of Washington D.C and North Carolina and other southern places. It's funny how gifts can become associated with particular times and places. Anyway, nostalgia aside this book holds up and then some to the fantasy series of today. Like the best books which are aimed at children, this book can be understood at different levels by children and adults. Cooper didn't write down to children nor did she dumb stuff down. 

To be fair this book is probably aimed at older children. Although obviously children wouldn't always understand or relate to many of the sexual or violent urges that lay behind a culture's unifying myths, children certainly understand jealousy, fair play, betrayal and meanness. And all of those things are on display in The Grey King

The Grey King is the fourth of Cooper's five book series, The Dark Is Rising. I believe I read one of the earlier entries in the series. One day I will need to go back and read the series from start to end. But The Grey King stands alone. It helps to have read one of the previous stories but it's not necessary. As you can no doubt guess from the title of this series this is about, what else, the epic battle between Good and Evil (Light and Dark) for all the marbles, life, the universe and everything. 

What makes this book interesting among other characteristics is that, much like F. Paul Wilson does in his Repairman Jack series, Cooper posits a good that at its core is something which is beyond human capacity to understand or accept. 

After all if you are concerned with the entire universe, whether one human finds love, lives or dies is perhaps not of much import. As one character says: "But those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law or the white burning of the sun. Other things, like humanity and mercy and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light. Oh sometimes they are there; often indeed. But in the very long run the concern of you people is with the absolute good , ahead of all else. You are like fanatics. Your masters, at any rate. Like the old Crusaders--oh, like certain groups in every belief, though this is not a matter of religion, of course. At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe."

Humans are fortunate that The Light seeks not to enslave humanity but to help it. The Dark seeks enslavement and degradation of humanity before the destruction of everything. 

Usually, neither The Dark or The Light can directly physically harm a human being. Humans are mixtures of Light and Dark and thus open to influence by either.The Dark, being the Dark is much less likely to take no for an answer. 

Most humans are not aware of the Light and would be unable to successfully interface with it if they were. The people who can interface with the Light and wield its powers are known as Old Ones. They are all immortal and can't be killed. Some of them live outside of time; others are constantly reborn. The English boy Will Stanton is one such Old One. Actually he's the last of the Old Ones to be born. He's currently in the body of a pre-teen boy. As this book starts Will has amnesia and is also ill. At his mother's and doctor's request, he's sent away to Wales to recuperate at his aunt's and uncle's home. There Will meets and befriends a strange albino boy named Bran and starts to remember what his mission is. Bran knows a lot more about The Light and The Dark than he should, and may be able to help Will on his quest. 

Bran's dog (and constant companion) is named Cafall. Dogs, and other canids, play an important part in this story. Unfortunately Will soon becomes aware that the most powerful of the Lords of the Dark, the Grey King, is nearby and intends to prevent Will from succeeding at his quest. There are certain rules, however, which bind even The Dark. But The Grey King could get other people to do his dirty work. These people aren't bound by the rules of the conflict. Some of those people are predisposed to dislike an English boy who talks and acts as if he's much older than he is. This book is crammed full of Welsh mythology with a few shoutouts to Arthurian, Norse and Christian lore.

Much as with similar work with L'Engle and Tolkien, Cooper's world balance can change drastically on small decisions made by people of seemingly little import. The small stuff matters. It's important. Human choices, love and hate can alter the entire universe. Again, some of the themes in the book are not things which would be understood by children but are certainly familiar to any adult. There's a lot here about loneliness, longing and need. In hardcover version this book was just over 200 pages. None of them were wasted. This book has such vivid description that it could make you fall in love with the Welsh countryside and language. 
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