Nov 12, 2008

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

“‘You remember the fairy stories you were told when you were very small – “once upon a time…”. Why do you think they all began like that?’
‘Because they weren’t true’ Simon said promptly.
Jane said, caught up t in the unreality of the high remote place, ‘Because perhaps they were true once, but nobody could remember when.’”
Jane, Barney and Simon are spending the summer in Cornwall. Their parents are joining their Great-Uncle Merry, who rented a property known as the Grey House in the village of Trewissick. When playing indoors one rainy day, they discover a hidden door that leads to the attic. There, carefully tucked away in a corner, is an old parchment with something that seems to be a map. And so their quest begins: With the guidance and help of their Great-Uncle Merry, the three children have to find the thing the map leads to, and along the way they to face the powers of Dark.

Over Sea, Under Stone is a promising beginning to a series that I suspect will become increasingly complex and epic as it moves along.

Now, as anyone who reads this blog no doubt knows, I read a lot of fantasy. So I know that fantasy as a genre tends to follow certain conventions. (Though there’s a lot of storytelling potential in subverting them, and this is something my favourite authors tend to do.) And although I can’t imagine myself ever tiring of fantasy, the repeated use of certain plot devices does mean they lose some of their efficacy. After a while, certain things just make us go “oh, so it’s going to be one of those.”

The mysterious parchment/treasure map found in the attic/basement/dark cave is one of those. It’s a testament to Susan Cooper’s storytelling ability, then, that despite the use of something that has become so familiar for fans of fantasy or adventure books, Over Sea, Under Stone still feels completely fresh. I was completely immersed in Jane, Simon and Barney’s quest. I was excited along with them, I feared along with them. Not for once did this feel like “just another adventure story”.

I think one of the reasons why I was so invested in the story was the fact that I truly cared about the characters. Then there was also Susan Cooper’s innovative use of Arthurian Myth. I think it’s no spoiler to say that the children’s quest has to do with King Arthur as his Knights, as the whole series is famous for its use of Arthurian lore. Susan Cooper used these stories in a contemporary setting, and she did it very effectively - they didn't feel out of place, and at the same time the reader still got the sense that the children were dealing with things that were truly old, that went back to forgotten times. She set the story in the present, but she also allowed it to keep its deep, deep roots.

Towards the end of the book there was a very interesting revelation that makes the rest of the series seem even more promising. I’ve read that the Drew children are not in the second book, The Dark is Rising, but return for the third one, Greenwitch. I can’t wait to see which direction the story will take.

Other Blog Reviews:
Words by Annie
Once Upon a Bookshelf

(Please let me know if I missed yours!)


  1. I read The Dark is Rising series over and over again when I was a kid. I *loved* it. I hope you enjoy the rest of it!

  2. I definitely need to dig these out and read them as you've written such an interesting review! I've only got the first two though so need to get the third... *or* get that lovely omnibus you've got as a Christmas present to myself. :-D

  3. These were among my favourite books when I was little, and I wish I could read them again for the first time! Unfortunately, I tried to read them again a couple of years ago with less positive results.

    I hope you enjoy the rest of the series!

  4. I really loved Cooper's books. I didn't read them until I was an adult, and was afraid I'd be disappointed, I'd heard so much about them. You're right, they feel so refreshing- and the characterization is great.

  5. This is a great review, Nymeth. I do agree with your thoughts about how fantasy stories tend to go a certain similar way. But I think that's also a comfort in that. :)

  6. Mmmm, treasure map in the attic type! Reminds me of Goonies. :) I guess if you haven't seen the movie you don't know what I'm talking about. Seems to be a cult classic with people my age here.

    Does sound like a fun book, but I know what you mean about the conventions and keeping things fresh.

  7. "Once upon a time..." This may sounds cliche, but I always love this first opening. It leads me to wondering more about the story and keeps me for wanting more! :)

    And I definitely agree about caring for the characters because they're like "leaders" of the story. If they do not intrigue me into reading more, then I can see no point of reading any further.

  8. Great review Nymeth. You've defintely made this book sound like one I need to read-I'll be adding it the wish list.

  9. Cool! I wasn't truly looking forward to reading this, maybe because someone told me it wasn't theri favourite in the series, but now I am!

  10. The Dark is Rising series was one of my favourites as a child. I still have my copies and re-read them occasionally ;0)

  11. hooray! I don't have to add these to my wish list!.... they're already there ..sheesh... not sure which is longer my tbr pile or wish list!

  12. I've heard such good things about this series and recently bought it. Can't wait to start, maybe over Christmas!

  13. Great review! I have this book sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me to open it - now I really can't wait to read it!

  14. Just curious...are you going to keep reading them straight through? I'm always more tempted to do that when books are all collected into one volume than when I have separate books. (Uh, I'm not sure if that made sense...)

  15. Maree, I bet I will :)

    Cath: The omnibus is very much worth it, I think!

    Memory: That's too always makes me so sad to revisit childhood favourites and find out they don't quite live up to my memories of them.

    Jeane: It really is!

    Alice, I most definitely agree. The same goes for fairy tales...the familiar elements are so comforting. And I'm not one of those people who think that stories with a similar pattern are all "the same story". I think the details are what make each story unique.

    Trish: lol, the Goonies! I'm laughing because my boyfriend was shocked to find out I had spent a Goonies-less childhood, and then made me watch it with him. I did enjoy it, but it didn't have quite the same impact it would have had when I was a kid :P

    Melody, I love it too. It takes you to a special place :) And yes, caring about the characters really is very important for me...even if that means loving to hate them! I just don't want to be left indifferent.

    Dar, I hope you enjoy it!

  16. Valentina: it's possible that the other ones are even better! But this is quite a good start.

    The holistic knitter: after just one book I think I can see why!

    Deslily: I think my wishlist is definitely longer...there are literally hundreds of books on it :P

    Joanna and Court, I hope you both enjoy it as much as me :)

    Megan: Oooh, I didn't know it was set during Christmas! I picked the right time to read it, then.

    Debi: I'm not, and for a silly reason :P See, only the first one was a challenge book, and I really want to wrap up some more challenges this month. So I'm reading some challenge books now, and once those are "out of the way" I'll reward myself with the rest of the series. It works because the ending wasn't a cliffhanger or anything...although you can see that the story will continue, this first book would work as a standalone too.

  17. This sounds very good. I've never heard of this series before.

    Its great when you care about the characters in a book youre reading.
    Great review, now I want to read this one!

  18. Yes, I suspect you are right. I think it's one of those movies you have to see when you are younger.

  19. I didn't read these as a kid, but when I was in my early 20s and well into a solid fantasy kick. I agree with you that some of the plot devices in this one feel a little overused and dated, but I kept reminding myself that it was originally published in 1965 - so it's one of the originators of the cliché!

    I'm looking forward to hearing what you think of the second one - it's my favorite in the series. I absolutely recommend reading it sometime in December, in a snowstorm if possible.

  20. Over Sea, Under Stone right now too. Actually I got one big volume from that has the whole series.

    I like the first book, I'm about 3/4 done but it feels a little slow so far. Maybe I was expecting to see more magic or something. I have high hopes for the next book in the series.

  21. Naida: Yes, it always makes the book better :)

    Trish: The funny bit is that I don't even remember hearing of it when I was a kid. See, I must have lived under a rock too :P

    Fyrefly: Unfortunately it doesn't snow here, but I'll keep that in mind and save these to read over the holidays! And you're right about this being the origin of some of those plot devices. I wonder if knowing that is one of the reasons why it felt so fresh to me regardless.

    Kathybou, I have an omnibus edition too. I hope you enjoy the series!

  22. I know what you mean about certain literary devices standing out, especially when you've read so many books that use it. That happens to me sometimes with crime fiction.

    This does sound good. I'm always leary of books that use the Arthurian Myth--I'm not sure why as I have no good reason (and one of my favorite all-time books is Mists of Avalon no less). You've convinced me that I should give this series a try.

  23. Oh I like the opening quote! I have to add this to my want to read list.

  24. I picked up a lovely hardback edition of this series last time I was in Liverpool and am very much looking forward to reading them. Thanks for the review, I will put it higher on my pile.

  25. Literary Feline: I love the Mists of Avalon too, and most of the time I like Arthurian Retellings, but the danger with them is that sometimes they make you feel like you're reading the exact same story all over again without any substantial changes. So my favourites are the ones that introduce new elements or are told from an unusual angle - anything that makes them stand out. And so far, I'd say that's definitely the case with The Dark is Rising.

    Ladytink, I really loved it too! It's part of a conversation that the Drew children have with someone who turns out to be important, but I will say no more :P

    Rhinoa: Is it the blue and golden one? I have it too! It really is lovely. I'm sure you'll enjoy the series!

  26. I was inspired to read this book after reading your review. I loved it! I'm just starting The Dark is Rising. So, thanks for introducing me to this series!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.