Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 2000; 196 pp.
Originally published by Jonathan Cape (London), 1965
Once Upon a Time II Challenge
Ever since he had learned to read, Barney's greatest heroes had been King Arthur and his knights. In his dreams he fought imaginary battles as a member of the Round Table, rescuing fair ladies and slaying false knights. He had been longing to come to the West Country; it gave him a strange feeling that he would in some way be coming home. [p. 4]
In Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper's fantasy novel for young readers, the Drew children – Simon, Jane, and Barney (short for Barnabas) – along with their father and mother, have come to Cornwall to spend their vacation in the seaside village of Trewissick. They're staying with their Great-Uncle Merry in his mysterious Grey House. Soon after arrival, while the grownups are off tending to their grownup business, the three kids are left to explore their new surroundings. After uncovering a hidden entrance to the attic, they find an old manuscript that looks like a treasure map. And that's when the adventure begins.
The manuscript turns out to be the key to the hiding place of an ancient artifact from King Arthur's court. And soon the three youngsters, along with their enigmatic great uncle, are caught up in the ages-old legend of Arthur's battle for Good against Evil. There are enemies in the village who are also searching for the object, and will go to any lengths to get it. Not wanting to give too much of the plot away, I'll just say that the three Drew kids end up vanquishing the forces of darkness, at least for the time being (well, you knew they would), and almost uncover the secret of their Great-Uncle Merry's true identity.
This is the first book in Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence of five novels (named for the second novel in the series), and I understand that it's very different from the other four. It actually reads more like a mystery novel than fantasy. For one thing, at first glance anyway, it doesn't have a lot of the trappings of traditional fantasies – no fairies, demons, dragons, magic, witches or wizards – although some of those things are hinted at. And it's set in modern-day England (well, fairly modern), but it has a timeless quality that I found very appealing – thankfully, there are no cell phones, instant messaging, or computer games to distract the Drews from their quest.
I've been intending to read this book for years , and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can see why it's been a favorite of kids and adults alike, ever since it appeared 30-odd years ago. The story is exciting, with lots of twists and turns and near-disasters. The characters are well-developed, and the action is mostly plausible, given the fact that we're dealing with a cosmic fight between the forces of light and darkness. I can't wait to get started on the next title in the series.
And since this was such a fast read, I've decided to take on one of the other "quests" in the Once Upon a Time Challenge. My update post is here.