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Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan CooperUK edition4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsSusan Cooper’s Newbery Medal-honored five-volume series The Dark Is Rising is one of the most enduring works of young adult fantasy in the latter 20th century. Cooper’s mythic tales paid distinct homage to the legends that inspired them — particularly those of King Arthur, and the Mabinogion — and her reverence for this lore suffuses these engrossing adventures without weighing them down with self-importance.

Over Sea, Under Stone is a prequel to the series proper. The Drew siblings — Simon, Jane, and Barney — are vacationing with their parents in the coastal village of Trewissick in Cornwall. Exploring the musty attic of the Grey House, the imposing ancient home the family has rented for their holiday, the kids discover a cracked and enigmatic map which appears to show the local coastline and nearby environs. Their Great-Uncle Merry, Merriman Lyon, a traveling “professor” of some sort who neatly fills in the role of wise old sage, translates the obscure Latin and Old English text on the map. They learn that it does indeed hint at a lost treasure dating back a thousand years to the days of the original King Arthur, who fought nobly against forces of darkness which eventually overcame him. An ancient prophecy attached to the shriveled map foretells that a new Arthur will one day locate this treasure, and take up the age-old battle against evil.

Of course, there are baddies seeking both the map and its treasure. As the children follow the cryptic clues on the map, they are harried by a mysterious yachtsman, his creepy “sister,” a thuggish local boy, even the town’s vicar! Could there really be so many people allied with the dark, right under their very noses?

Though it employs tropes that have by now become far too familiar, Cooper’s story remains as refreshing, exciting, and unpretentious as it did so many decades ago. This is just wonderful entertainment for young and old alike. Breathless chase scenes keep the tension ramped up. Moonlit nights under enormous standing stones offer atmosphere that most fantasy writers would give their eyeteeth for, and the tale conveys a real sense of the timeless power of myth. The children are very appealing and believable, not the least bit cloying nor advanced beyond their years. (I’ve read kid’s stories where the author has had first-graders talking like grad students. Come on.) American readers will smile at how very British and old-fashioned everyone is. But Over Sea, Under Stone wins you over by the way it recalls what we all like to think of, realistically or not, as a simpler time. In subsequent years, middle grade fantasy has become a thriving publishing category, giving rise to a new generation of superstars in such authors as Rick Riordan and the pseudonymous Lemony Snicket. But after all this time, Susan Cooper’s venture into the mist-enshrouded realms of Arthurian myth has lost none of its magical appeal. There’s treasure in that old attic, indeed.

Followed by The Dark Is Rising.