Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

Silver on the Tree is the fifth and final book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and although I’m sorry to have come to the end of the series, I enjoyed every minute of it. This particular novel is the perfect finale, bringing together all the characters and storylines from the first four books as we head towards the great, decisive battle between the forces of the Dark and the Light. If you are new to the series, I would recommend starting with the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone; don’t start with this one, or I think you’ll be very confused!

Silver on the Tree, like the previous book The Grey King, is set mostly in Wales, where Will Stanton and his friend Bran Davies are searching for the mysterious Lady who holds the knowledge that will set the final part of their quest in motion.

‘Until the Lady comes,’ Merriman said. ‘And she will help you to the finding of the sword of the Pendragon, the crystal sword by which the final magic of the light shall be achieved, and the Dark put at last to flight. And there will be five to help you, for from the beginning it was known that six altogether, and six only, must accomplish this long matter. Six creatures more and less of the earth, aided by the six Signs’.

Will and Bran, together with their wise, elderly mentor Merriman Lyon, make up three of the six who are needed to complete the quest. The other three are Simon, Jane and Barney, the Drew children who appeared in some of the earlier novels and who happen to be visiting Wales with their parents. The six are soon united and each has a part to play in the adventures to come.

The Arthurian elements which were introduced in the previous books are stronger here – we finally meet King Arthur himself; there’s a glimpse of the Battle of Badon, the conflict between the Britons and Anglo-Saxons in which he was said to be involved; and there are appearances by other characters who sometimes appear in Arthurian legend, such as Gwion (or Taliesin) the bard. Welsh folklore also plays a part and the children have some chilling encounters with creatures such as the afanc, a Welsh lake monster, and a terrifying horse known as the Mari Lwyd! These are both used as agents of the Dark, along with the more commonplace but equally sinister (in this context) black mink and polecat.

The fantasy sequences in the novel are very well done, particularly an episode where Will and Bran travel through the Lost Lands in search of the crystal sword and meet the legendary king, Gwyddno Garanhir. Meanwhile, the Drew children find themselves transported through time, to a 19th century shipyard and then to the Welsh stronghold of Owain Glyndwr. Back in the ‘real world’, we are reacquainted with the other members of the Stanton family, mainly Will’s brothers, Stephen and James, who have an unpleasant encounter with a racist bully. This part of the story felt out of place at first, but I think it was intended to show how the Dark can find its way into the world through those who are susceptible to evil. Will reflects later that maybe ‘the Dark can only reach people at extremes – blinded by their own shining ideas, or locked up in the darkness of their own heads’.

I still have the same complaint I had after reading some of the previous books – that the tasks are solved too easily and the correct solutions just ‘come’ to Will and the others without them having to put too much effort into it. However, I know this series is intended for younger readers, so maybe I was expecting too much. Apart from that, I loved Silver on the Tree and the whole of The Dark is Rising and just wish I could have discovered these books as a child!

The Grey King by Susan Cooper

This is the fourth book in Susan Cooper’s five-volume sequence, The Dark is Rising, and I feel as though things are starting to fall nicely into place ahead of the fifth and final book, Silver on the Tree. I’m beginning to form a better understanding of the opposing forces of the Light and the Dark and how the various characters and elements of the series have their roots in Arthurian legend and British folklore. However, this book also raises new questions and explores issues and topics not yet touched upon in the earlier novels, so there’s still a long way to go before the end!

The Grey King begins with Will Stanton, the eleven-year-old boy – and ‘Old One’ – we met in The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch, going to stay with an aunt and uncle in Wales while recuperating from hepatitis. His parents hope it will be a nice, relaxing break for him, but it turns out to be just the opposite! During Will’s illness, he has forgotten the details of the quest begun in the previous novels, but as his memories slowly return he remembers that his next task is to find the golden harp that will awaken six sleepers who will join the final battle between Dark and Light.

The three Drew children, who played such important roles in Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch, don’t appear in this book, but Will receives help this time from a new friend, Bran, a boy he meets in the Welsh hills. With his white hair and pale skin, as well as a mystery surrounding the disappearance of his mother, Bran has never fitted in with other children and leads a lonely, solitary life with only his beloved dog, Cafall, for company. When Will learns that Bran is ready to help him with the next stage of the quest, a bond forms between the two and they set out together to find the harp and wake the sleepers.

The villain this time is the Brenin Llwyd, or the ‘Grey King’, an ancient and powerful Lord of the Dark who lives high in the mountains, his breath forming a ragged grey mist that can be seen for miles around. Although Will and Bran have little direct contact with the Grey King for most of the book, they are aware of his presence all around them and of the work of his agents, the bitter and spiteful farmer, Caradog Prichard, and the powerful grey foxes known as the Milgwn. Like the other books in the series, this one is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric, and while the Dark continues to feel evil and malevolent, we are again made to question how ‘good’ the Light really is:

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…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.

As with The Dark is Rising, I felt that the mission was completed much too easily (I was particularly disappointed with a game of riddles, as very little effort went into solving them). The tasks that have faced the Drew children seem to be more difficult and dangerous somehow, maybe because they are ‘ordinary’ children and don’t have the powers that Will has. However, the quest is only one aspect of the novel and there are other elements that interested me as much or more. I particularly loved the Welsh setting – and was grateful for the lesson in Welsh pronunciation Will receives early in the novel! I also enjoyed getting to know Bran and discovering how he fits into the overall story.

I’m looking forward to reading Silver on the Tree and finding out how it all ends!

Book 4 for R.I.P. XVI

Witch Week: The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart

This week Lory of The Emerald City Book Review is hosting her annual Witch Week event, a celebration of fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme is Dreams of Arthur – books which draw on the Arthurian legends. Having read and loved Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy a few years ago, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to read The Wicked Day, another of her Arthurian novels.

There is some overlap between The Wicked Day and the events of the final Merlin novel, The Last Enchantment, but in this book the focus switches to Mordred, the son of King Arthur and his half-sister, the witch Morgause. At the beginning of the novel, Mordred is being raised by peasants in the Orkney Islands and is unaware of his true parentage. It is only by chance that he is brought back into contact with his real mother, Morgause, by now the widow of King Lot of Lothian and Orkney, with whom she has had four more sons. Aware of Merlin’s prophecy suggesting that Mordred will be the cause of Arthur’s death, Morgause takes the boy into her household, sensing that he could be a useful weapon against Arthur.

Eventually, Morgause and her sons are summoned south to Camelot and Mordred will have to decide where his loyalties lie. But even if he chooses Arthur, will he be able to defy the prophecy or will he prove to be his father’s downfall after all?

I enjoyed this book, though maybe not quite as much as the three Merlin novels, which is probably because I found Merlin himself a more appealing character than Mordred. Having said that, Mary Stewart’s portrayal of Mordred is much more sympathetic than I had expected. Although my knowledge of Arthurian legend is very limited, I had gained the impression from other sources that Mordred was a villain, a traitor who betrayed Arthur. Stewart’s Mordred is not like that at all. He’s by no means perfect – he does have flaws and makes mistakes – but he always has the best of intentions and although he is ambitious any trouble he does cause for Arthur is largely due to circumstances outside his control.

As well as Mordred’s relationship with Arthur, his interactions with his four half-brothers – Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth – are also explored. Their attitudes towards Mordred range from suspicion and rivalry to reluctant acceptance and respect. As I’ve said, I don’t know a lot about the Arthurian legends, so although I had heard of King Lot’s four sons and had a basic idea of how their stories would play out, it really was only a basic idea! The advantage of going into a book knowing very little about a subject is that you can be kept in suspense wondering what is going to happen and enjoy the story for its own sake, without any preconceived opinions; on the other hand, it would have been nice to have had other versions of the story and characters in mind so that I could have made comparisons and looked for similarities and differences.

At the end of the book we are given brief retellings of the sections of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain which deal with the Mordred legend. Stewart then goes on to explain why she chose to interpret Mordred’s character the way she did; I found it interesting to read that while she was writing the earlier Merlin novels she had accepted the traditional view of Mordred as a villain and only changed her mind when she came to research his story in detail.

As with Mary Stewart’s other Arthurian novels, the elements of fantasy in The Wicked Day are very subtle and understated, amounting to not much more than a few prophecies and visions. The 6th century Britain that she recreates is a real, believable place and her books feel much more like historical fiction than fantasy, which is possibly why I like them so much. I am planning to read her final Arthurian novel, The Prince and the Pilgrim, and will then see how other authors have approached the legends. When I reviewed The Last Enchantment I received lots of ideas for future reading in the comments, so I have plenty of books and authors to explore. Chris of Calmgrove has also put together a very informative guest post for Witch Week with more suggestions and recommendations.

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment The Last Enchantment is the final part of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which began with The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills. I have been reading it this week for Lory’s Witch Week, a celebration of fiction based on fairy tales, folklore, myths and legends, but I’m sure I would have picked it up soon anyway as I loved the first two books and was looking forward to reading the conclusion of Merlin’s story.

The Last Enchantment picks up the story where The Hollow Hills ended, with Arthur beginning his reign as High King of Britain after pulling the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) from its stone. Almost immediately, Arthur must begin a series of battles against the Saxons before he can achieve peace and security throughout his kingdom. But Arthur is not the main focus of the novel; like the previous two books, this one is narrated by Merlin…and Merlin is facing a battle of his own. Arthur’s half-sister, the witch Morgause, has given birth to a son, and Merlin has foreseen that this child, Mordred, could pose a threat to the King.

In the first half of the novel, Merlin tells us of his journey north in search of Mordred, as well as several other events, such as the building of Camelot and Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, which will be familiar even to readers who, like me, only have a basic knowledge of the Arthurian legends. In the second half of the book, there is a growing sense of sadness and poignancy as Merlin ages, his magical powers begin to fade and Arthur, while still valuing his friendship, no longer relies on him as he used to. Merlin takes on an apprentice, Nimuë, whom he hopes will eventually take his place as the King’s enchanter, but he soon discovers that his new assistant has some surprises in store for him.

Maybe because I found this such a sad story, I didn’t love it quite as much as The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, but I do think all three are wonderful books. I was slightly disappointed with the portrayal of the female characters (I think I mentioned that in my review of the previous novel too). Arthur’s sisters, Morgan and Morgause, are both evil witches, while Guinevere is pushed into the background and never really comes to life at all. Then there’s Nimuë, whose storyline I really disliked and found quite painful to read at times. Merlin’s relationship with Arthur, though, is one of the highlights of the book and I found myself looking forward to all of their scenes together.

Before reading this trilogy my knowledge of Arthurian myth was limited to T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and one or two television adaptations which I can now barely remember watching; I think this was an advantage, because it meant I was kept in suspense, only vaguely aware of the outline of the story and the role each character would play. I was surprised that there was no Lancelot (his part in the story is taken by Arthur’s friend, Bedwyr, instead), I had no idea that Arthur was thought to have had more than one wife called Guinevere and I knew nothing of the involvement of Nimuë in the later stages of Merlin’s story. Mary Stewart discusses all of these things and more in her author’s note at the end of the book, explaining how she chose to interpret various sources and to decide what to include in her version of the legend.

I was sorry to reach the end of Merlin’s story, but I can definitely see myself wanting to re-read all three of these books in the future – and, of course, I would also like to read Mary Stewart’s other two Arthurian novels, The Wicked Day (the story of Mordred) and The Prince and the Pilgrim. I think it’s fascinating that there are so many different variations of these legends and now that I’ve read this version, I’m interested in reading interpretations by other authors. If you can recommend any good ones, please let me know!

The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart

Hollow Hills I didn’t really intend to read The Hollow Hills last weekend. I have books on my library pile, review copies to catch up with, and books to read for various other projects, but something made me yearn for Mary Stewart and I picked up the second of her Arthurian novels on Saturday morning. I was immediately pulled into the story and had finished the book by Monday.

The Hollow Hills is part of a series of five books set in Arthurian Britain, although the first three are usually described as the Merlin Trilogy. The first book, The Crystal Cave, introduces us to Merlin and his world; The Hollow Hills continues the story, beginning just before the birth of Arthur. As the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine of Cornwall, the young Arthur is sent into hiding, not only as protection against Uther’s enemies but also to keep him conveniently out of the way until another legitimate heir is born. But Merlin, with his gift of prophecy and visions, knows that it will be Arthur who will one day raise the legendary sword Caliburn from its resting place and become King.

Like The Crystal Cave, the story is narrated by Merlin himself and as Arthur is only a baby throughout much of the novel (and still only fourteen at the end) this book is more about Merlin than it is about Arthur. While Arthur is growing up in safety, ignorant of his true parentage, Merlin is having adventures of his own as he travels throughout Europe, takes on new identities, and explores the legends behind the great sword Caliburn (which until now I have always known as Excalibur). I loved the book from beginning to end and was never bored, but there is always the sense that the whole novel is building towards the moment when Arthur will learn who he really is and be ready to reclaim his heritage.

The plot means that Merlin and Arthur are kept apart for most of the novel, but I enjoyed the scenes that they do have together. I like the way Mary Stewart portrays both characters and the development of the bond between the two of them. It’s disappointing, though, that there are no strong female characters in this book: Ygraine only appears briefly and while Morgause (in this version Arthur’s half-sister) does have an important role in the story, she is hardly portrayed very flatteringly. Apart from that, I loved everything else about this book, and of course, it’s very well written with lots of beautiful, vivid descriptions. It’s Mary Stewart, after all!

While I don’t have a lot of knowledge of the Arthurian legends, I do know the basic details, so some parts of the story felt familiar to me – but even where I thought I knew what was going to happen, this didn’t lessen the enjoyment of the book for me. There is not just one version of the legend, of course, but lots of them which all differ slightly, and in her notes at the end of the book, Stewart explains some of the choices she has made. Some readers may be disappointed that there is so little actual ‘magic’ in this novel, but that’s one of the things I like about it; most of what happens has a rational explanation and there’s only a touch of the supernatural.

I think of the two books in this series that I’ve read so far, I did prefer The Crystal Cave, but only slightly, and I’m now looking forward to reading the next one, The Last Enchantment.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave With only four of Mary Stewart’s suspense novels still to read, I decided that for Anbolyn’s Mary Stewart Reading Week I would try one of her Arthurian novels instead. The Crystal Cave is the first in the series and introduces us to Myrddin Emrys, better known as Merlin. I should begin by saying that I have previously read very few novels that tell the story of Merlin or King Arthur (T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone is the only one that really comes to mind). I wasn’t sure that The Crystal Cave would be my type of book and I wondered if I would regret not picking up another of the romantic suspense novels for the reading week. Well, I can assure you that I didn’t regret my choice at all!

The book is set in 5th century Britain, a land of several warring kingdoms held together by Vortigern, the High King. Vortigern has invited the Saxons to Britain to help him rule, but they are disliked by the people and Vortigern’s throne is soon under threat not only from his own son, Vortimer, but also from two other princes – Ambrosius and Uther who are exiled in Less Britain (Britanny). This is the world into which Merlin is born.

Our story begins with six-year-old Merlin living in the home of his grandfather, the King of South Wales. Merlin’s mother is the King’s daughter, Niniane, but the identity of his father is unknown as Niniane has refused to reveal his name. Merlin is a lonely child, despised by his grandfather, but he is also very intelligent, quick to learn and has a special gift known as ‘the Sight’. One day he rides out into the hills near his home and discovers a cave inhabited by a man called Galapas. Inside this cave is a second, smaller cave filled with crystals in which Merlin has visions when he looks into the light of these crystals. When fate takes him across the Narrow Sea to Less Britain several years later, Merlin meets the exiled Ambrosius and makes some important discoveries about both the past and the future…

The Crystal Cave is a great book and is now one of my absolute favourites by Mary Stewart. It obviously has a different feel from her contemporary suspense novels, but there were also some similarities and I could definitely tell it was written by the same author! Whenever I read a Stewart novel I expect a strong setting with vivid descriptions and I certainly got that with this book. Merlin’s travels take him through England, Brittany and Ireland, to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, to the wonders of Stonehenge and, of course, to Wales:

There were rain clouds massing in the west, but in front of them, like a bright curtain, the slanting sunlight. One could see on a day like this why the green hills of Wales had been called the Black Mountains and the valleys running through them the Valleys of Gold. Bars of sunlight lay along the trees of the golden valleys, and the hills stood slate-blue or black behind them, with their tops supporting the sky.

One thing that surprised me about this book is that it does not have such a strong fantasy element as I’d expected. While Merlin certainly does have visions which foretell the future, many of the things he does have very little to do with magic and more to do with his observations and understanding of science and of human nature. I loved the way his character was portrayed; he felt so believable and real. It probably helped that I don’t have a lot of previous knowledge of the myths and legends surrounding Merlin which meant I had no preconceived ideas and could just concentrate on enjoying Mary Stewart’s version of the story. I’m so pleased I chose The Crystal Cave for the Reading Week and am now looking forward to meeting Merlin again in The Hollow Hills!

Review: The Divine Sacrifice by Tony Hays

The Divine Sacrifice is the second in a series of historical mysteries set in Arthurian Britain. Don’t miss my interview with author Tony Hays.

My review:

When an elderly monk is found murdered in his cell at the abbey of Ynys-witrin, King Arthur’s counselor Malgwyn ap Cuneglas is asked to investigate. On their arrival at the abbey, however, Malgwyn and Arthur are surprised to find that St Patrick is also about to arrive from Hibernia in order to root out heresy in the monastery. Is there a connection between the death of old Elafius and the presence of St Patrick at the abbey? As Malgwyn begins to unravel the mystery he discovers something which could threaten not only Arthur but the future of the country.

The Divine Sacrifice can be enjoyed on different levels as an Arthurian story, a historical fiction novel and a murder mystery, although it’s the combination of all three that makes the book so compelling. I have read a lot of mysteries and a lot of historical fiction but this book really stands out as something new and different.

I love the character of Malgwyn, who is one of the most unusual detectives I’ve ever encountered in a book. As one of the other characters in the novel observes, he’s an ‘uncommon man with an uncommon clarity of vision’. We also meet Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and others who will be familiar to anyone with even a basic knowledge of Arthurian legend, athough they are not depicted in the way you might expect. It’s important to understand that this is not a retelling of the famous Arthur legends – it’s actually an original historical mystery with elements of the legends cleverly woven into the story. Arthur is shown here as a powerful leader who is working to unite the warring tribes of post-Roman Britain.
The mystery unfolds at just the right pace and there are enough twists in the story to keep the reader guessing all the way to the end. Tony Hays has obviously done a lot of research on his subject and is able to portray life in 5th century Britain in a realistic and convincing manner, meaning that I came away from the book feeling I knew a little bit more about the time period than I did before.

Although I hadn’t read the first book in the series, The Killing Way, the author provided enough background information relating to the events of the first book that I was quickly able to pick up the threads of the story and understand what was going on. However, I enjoyed The Divine Sacrifice so much I now want to go back and read The Killing Way and I’ll look forward to more books in this series in the future.


Genre: Historical Mystery/Pages: 304/Publisher: Forge/Year: 2010/Source: Won ARC in giveaway