The Grey King won children's literature's ultra-prestigious Newbery Medal, and it returns this saga to the mythic grandeur of Cooper's previous masterpiece The Dark Is Rising, which, ironically, was only a Newbery runner-up. (Hey, what do awards committees know?) Short but no less epic for it, The Grey King is the story of 11-year-old Will Stanton's coming into his own as the last of the Old Ones, those immortals whose task it has been from time immemorial to combat the forces of the Dark that seek to dominate the world. But what at first seems another exercise in running down the archetypes takes on an impressive depth as Susan Cooper veers from the typical moral clarity of genre fantasy and explores the grey areas that can cloud the judgments and actions of the best of men. Sure, today, moral ambiguity has become a storytelling cliché in its own right, but here, in this deceptively simple, beautifully rendered young-adult tale, Cooper's layered and rich writing delivers up a work of satisying maturity.
Will, recuperating from a bout of hepatitis at the home of his mom's cousin in Wales, is now struck with amnesia regarding who he is and the prophecies he must fulfill as laid out in the preceding volumes. He only recovers his memory upon meeting Bran Davies, an albino boy who fills the role of the "raven boy" in a shadowy prophecy concerning the recovery of a golden harp. (As in previous books, an ancient artifact must be found to combat the Dark.) But Will's reawakening triggers devilish activity on the part of the Grey King, a fearsome, unseen agent of the Dark said to inhabit a nearby mountain. Fires, landslides, and spectral, ravenous white foxes no one but the boys can see are among the obstacles thrown at them.
In a scene that packs more pure, breathtaking magical atmosphere than most multibook sagas in their entirety, Will and Bran locate a chamber deep within a hill where they must answer riddles in order to recover the harp. It's moments like these that pull you up short and remind you of what you first loved about fantasy: that sense of transport, that dreamlike sensation that you've entered a mythic world in which literally anything can happen. And Cooper pulls it off effortlessly. No spoilers intended, but there's a moment when the boys are confronted with a vision of the vastness of the universe that leaves you reeling in a way even the best SF seems to have forgotten!
It's only when unforeseen tragedy strikes that the ooh-aah escapist stuff begins to be tempered with a dose of the harshness and unfairness of reality. In this regard Cooper is foreshadowing the work of contemporary fantasists like Martin and Goodkind, who've demonstrated the dramatic power of hurting your protagonists often and with enthusiasm. Martin has learned the lesson better, however, as Cooper explores the consequences of actions in a manner that will be very familiar to A Song of Ice and Fire devotees. "People are very complicated," Will remarks in an authentically uncomplicated 11-year-old's way, but it's probably the truest answer to that most complicated of questions Why?
If I have to critique, then I can only say I wish this book were longer, even if only by fifty pages or so (it's well under 200). The first few chapters do feel a little rushed, barely giving us time to settle into Will's new surroundings before the story kicks into fifth gear. (But I really appreciated Bran's crash course in Welsh pronunciation!) Then again, it's high time Will stepped back into the spotlight; here, the wizardly, mentor archetype Merriman has the slightest of walk-on roles, which is very satisfying after Greenwitch (in which Will, so strongly established in TDIR, was little more than Merriman's sidekick).
The Grey King does a dazzling job of maintaining this series' high standards of excellence. A kindred spirit to Tolkien and Lewis, and a precursor to many of the top names writing fantasy today, Susan Cooper is worthy of your rediscovery. Don't let any embarrassment at browsing the young-adult shelves of your local bookstore allow you to overlook her. Of course, there's always the amazon.com link above...