Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
Posted on November 25, 2017
by Adam Burgess
Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew are on a summer trip with their parents, visiting their mysterious uncle in Trewissick, a small and ancient village, just outside the limits of Cornwall, England. It is fabled that Cornwall is the land of that once and future King, Arthur Pendragon. After discovering an ancient map in the attic of the “Grey House,” which their parents have rented for the holiday, the kids are soon sucked into events beyond their years and beyond their control. As the children are quick to discover, the village is rife with members of the “Dark” – forces who seek to find the Holy Grail and use its power for evil. The Drew siblings, with a little help and protection from their Uncle Merry (who is more than he appears) and dog Rufus, must learn to read the map, understand its clues, and find the Grail before the Dark can get to it.
Though I enjoyed this book overall, the biggest complaint I have is its lack of character development, depth, or description. The reader spends most of his time with the three Drew children, but I for one never really got a grasp on each of their individual personalities, or even the simple things like what they look like (aside from Barney’s light-colored hair) or how old they are. Even by the end of the book, I honestly felt like I had to create their images and personalities almost entirely in my head. The mysterious Uncle Merry, too, only gets a decent description in the last few pages, though he’s had many “on page” moments. The parents are nearly entirely on the periphery, as they tend to be in many of these YA Fantasy books where the kids are the heroes, and while I felt I had a small understanding of the father, there wasn’t much for the mother (who, as an artist, could have been a wonderful opportunity). Bill Hoover Jr. and Mr. and Miss Withers were okay, as was Hastings and Mrs. Palk. Still, these were characters who were all, in some way, antagonistic toward the main characters, and only as effective as in relation to the Drew children, who were sadly under-developed.
Fortunately, though the book lacked depth and growth in its characters, it was very well written. The prose is engaging and a bit challenging (in a good way); more so than, say, the Chronicles of Narnia series, which is likely written for the same age group and for readers of similar interests. Dialogue is spot on, too, and Cooper does a nice job of linking characters’ thoughts or dialogue with facial expressions, body movements, etc. When Rufus the dog is scared or angry, for instance, it is described both in the physical manifestations, as well as the sounds and actions the dog makes. There is a bit more “telling” than showing, where human characters are involved, but not so much so as to be distracting or to detract from the enjoyment of the plot in action.
What completely surprised me about this book, because it was not hinted at in the book’s description, was that the crux of the fantasy element and good v. evil power struggle in this book is the Arthurian legend. The legend of Merlin and Arthur, the quest for the Holy Grail and its disappearance, etc., is something I am fascinated with in general. So, when I discovered that this is where the book was leading, the plot became suddenly much more interesting and enjoyable. Having this legend as the driving force for the story also added a deeper level of meaning for the fantasy itself; battles between good and evil, with supernatural elements, magical beings, ancient languages and all, can be and often are very interesting motivators for a fantasy plot, but when those elements are interwoven with another ancient legend, and those specific elements of the legend start to play out in the new story’s plot (which takes place centuries later), it’s a different kind of magic. It reminds me of what Riordan does with his mythology series’ (Percy Jackson, The Kane Chronicles, etc.) – using modern places and events + contemporary storytelling to retell the ancient Greek and Egyptian myths. Susan Cooper is doing the same with the Arthurian Legend, and it’s groovy.
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
I’d not really thought about it before, but you’re right—there isn’t really character development. It wasn’t something that bothered me at all when I read the series in elementary school (the plot’s the thing!), but I found it annoying on my recentish reread not being able to really tell the children’s ages, at least. My favorite aspect was also the Arthurian weavings in, which I like even better in the later books as they also bring in other Celtic legends that are less familiar. Are you planning to read the rest of the series? The cast of characters is almost comletely different in the second book (which I like better than the first) before combining forces in the third on, and I do think the series gets better as it moves forward.
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Thanks! Yes, I bought the box set, and I enjoyed this first installment; so I definitely plan to read the whole series.
It’s a long time since I read these but I seem to recall that the books and characters do improve as they go along – maybe I should re-read… 🙂
Cooper wrote this one a decade earlier than the others, I think, without conceiving it as a series at that time. She definitely grew as a writer in the meantime. The Dark Is Rising and Greenwitch are my favorites.
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Yep, there was a large gap between the first and the rest. IIRC she didn’t mean for it to be a series at all when she wrote the first one. Her writing and characterization did improve in the meantime. You’re just in time for the Dark is Rising; it’s a Christmas story and I frequently re-read it in December. 🙂
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I loved this series so much! The characters definitely didn’t bother me reading as a teen. I found my beloved old copies and read them before they fell apart a few years ago. I agree with the other comments that the books get only better. I will look forward to your thoughts on the rest of the series.