Seaward by Susan Cooper

Seaward book cover
Rating 9.5/10
One of the finest executions of this genre you will find.

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Susan Cooper is an author who I have had a great respect for ever since reading her Dark is Rising books as a child (and indeed more recently as an adult). When I discovered Seaward at the age of 16, I was incredibly pleased to find Cooper's work did not stop with the Dark is Rising, and that she had in fact written a full stand alone fantasy novel almost entirely set in an alternate world, although with two protagonists from the world we know.

The book centres around Cally (short for Calliope), a girl from a village in the south of England, and Westerly, a boy from a country in Africa living under an oppressive military dictatorship. Both are 16, and both in different ways have just endured great losses in their lives. The book opens with Westerly already trekking through a strange and mysterious country with very different laws to our own, and rapidly Cally finds herself transported there as well. After some adventures apart the two meet and decide to continue travelling together. All they know is that they must journey towards the sea, though how they know this they are not exactly sure, through whatever obstacles, dangers and trials the land and it's ruler, the treacherous Lady Taranis can put in their way.

One thing which I admired all the way through Seaward is Cooper's beautiful economy. It is rare to find a book which is neither too long nor too short but exactly the right length, and which spends precisely and expertly the right amount of time on its various aspects. We learn just enough about Cally and Westerly to understand where they're coming from and what their motivations are, indeed we only learn how Westerly himself entered the country through what he tells Cally. The way Cooper can create quite subtle characters with not much effort is breath-taking. It is also extremely refreshing, after so many modern novels featuring bickering teenagers and those dreadful love hate relationships to find a book that involves a boy and girl who must work together in a difficult situation and who do eventually become extremely close, but who are both inherently good and decent people who you actually want to see succeed. Maybe this is due to the losses both have suffered, or maybe it is just Cooper realizing not all teenagers are self-centred drama magnates and some relationships do actually involve people who like each other.

Seaward is a slightly more adult novel. This isn't to say that it involves buckets of blood or gratuitous nudity, but it's central themes, life and death, loss, love and change are ones which are a little more subtle. There is also one scene which at least approaches physical romance, albeit Cooper with her gift for both realism and restraint shows this to be not a meaningless display of adolescent urges, but an actual and very real desire by Westerly to seek and give comfort in a bad situation. Again, I applaud Cooper for her subtlety and humanity here, contrary to popular belief not all men (even 16 year old men), are emotionless meatheads ruled by pure instinct.

It is interesting that while Seaward was written in 1980, nearly 35 years ago, upon rereading the book nowhere had I to consciously remind myself that I was reading a work out of its time. Part of this is undoubtedly the fantasy setting, but another part is the wonderful way Cooper balances the story between both of her characters, especially notable given that she has both a male and female protagonist. Both characters share their own ways of interacting with the magic of the world, their own distinct and individual conflicts and resolutions and both take equal part in the journey. In some ways you could almost read the book as two separate stories, each with its own protagonist that just happen to be told together. So if you are expecting a predictable tale of the handsome hero carrying his lady love across the wild landscape, or the beautiful princess with her faithful sidekick at her beck and call you will be disappointed on both counts.

In many ways Seaward is almost a precursor to the introspective fantasies of Steven King or Ursula Le Guin, in which characters' personal conflicts and the natural conflicts of the fantasy world become almost inseparable. This makes Seaward have the distinct feeling of a coming of age story, but whereas often such stories read as almost a forgone conclusion, or an unsatisfying end to a wonderful childhood (after all while Peter and the others must leave Narnia and not come back we're never told they find anything better in the real world), Seaward makes what the characters gain through their growth from children to adults very evident. Indeed this is explicitly noted in the book's conclusion. It is also made absolutely clear that such gains are a matter of personal choice rather than inevitable maturation.

One unique aspect of The Land, and one which it is rather hard to separate out, is what is description, what is magic, and what is emotion. Where people like Brandon Sanderson have exemplified the idea of magic as a system of applicable game rules and limitations, Cooper's approach harks back to something older, more instinctive and almost shamanic, where the world itself can have aspects, intentions and emotions and where magic involves often the incomprehensible interplay between them. This is something she also gradually worked towards throughout her Dark is Rising series, but it is in Seaward where she most completely achieves it, leaving us with the impression of a place where even the bones of a gutted fish may yield magic, but only to those who understand their own part in the world that fish comes from.

It is also for this reason that the book needs praising for it's principle antagonist, The Lady Taranis. We are told quite honestly that she and the land are linked, that it is her country and indeed many of the natural as well as the magical dangers encountered by Cally and Westerly come from The Lady herself. What makes her more than just the stock evil sorceress however is the fact that she very clearly has two aspects and two desires, and that her efforts and intentions are far subtler and more mysterious than they initially appear, just like the Land itself. Another interesting fact about Taranis is that she is in no sense the sly, succubus style evil sorceress of popular culture. She really is unpredictability absolute, going from pure cruelty to sweetness in a second. Indeed while I very much appreciate the book's length, one thing I was a little sorry about was that there weren't more occasions of seeing Taranis switch between her two aspects, since those moments were so absolutely scary. It is also interesting to compare Taranis to the equally unnerving but far more one dimensional villains of Dark is Rising, since while people like the Rider or the Painter are unpleasant and deeply creepy, there is still a simplicity to them, they are still working for a distinct side, i.e. the Dark. With Taranis however it is absolutely clear she is working for herself, and the very mystery of who she is and what her ends are makes her a far darker character, especially when you see some of the interactions she has with those who's lives are dedicated to her.

One of my few disappointments with the book was with the one set against Taranis, the man called Lugan. In the final, beautiful conclusion to the novel we learn who Lugan is just as we learn of Taranis' identity, and we are also told Lugan has two aspects, however, where as Taranis definitely showed subtlety and unpredictability, Lugan just appeared the standard Gandalf style helpful wizard who appears at various intervals to pull the protagonists out of immediate danger. While the revelations of his identity do make his confrontations with Taranis take on another light, at the same time it would have been nice to see him given as much depth every other character of the book has, however briefly they appear. Lugan also provides the book's single bad point of plotting. While most dangers Cally and Westerly are able to escape through the understanding they have gained of each other or the world, there are a couple of occasions in which Lugan simply serves as a walking plot device, appearing just to teleport the protagonists out of harms way so that they can get on with the next part of the story. While the conclusion also provides at least some basis for understanding why Lugan acts this way, at the same time it does make his already thin character all the thinner, and also robs the tension out of several situations.

While the characters, (with the possible exception of Lugan), are universally well portrayed and subtle, the landscape and the writing style that describe it more than match them. Again, some of her work harks back to The Lost Land in the final Dark is Rising book, however perhaps because she intended Seaward for a slightly older audience, Susan Cooper goes a little deeper here. Her language is slightly more poetic and her rhythm and sense of timing is breath-taking, but never to the point of being overblown and never sacrificing her characters realism, (something even Tolkien struggled with on occasion).

The Land itself is almost a character in its own right and the ways Cally and Westerly perceive and travel across it are a dialogue in themselves. Uniquely however, this process works in reverse as well, making several of the supporting characters, such as the dour stone cutter or the alien Pef, take on the aspects and impressions of the parts of the landscape they inhabit.

Initially when I first read the novel I was disappointed that there seemed to be no final great obstacle to overcome before the conclusion, beyond inhospitable terrain and weather, however upon rereading the novel I realized that this was the final confrontation and that the actions Cally and Westerly take to overcome it and become closer in the process provide the perfect lead up to the book's final revelations at the shore of the sea.

The novel's last chapter is simply stunning, rarely has a book promised a revelation and then dealt one which absolutely lives up to the level of the anticipation, utterly changing the way you think of the entire world the book creates. It is even possible to reread the novel in a completely different light after understanding the conclusion. Yet at the same time Cooper manages to leave a lot of questions to the imagination, quite often by the very simple expedient of having the wisest and most all-knowing characters providing the final revelation to reveal that they themselves don't know why certain things happen, that they are a mystery. Yet, despite the mystery, more than enough is explained in detail, and even more is shown through Cooper's beautiful style, to make the conclusion absolutely and completely fitting.

Seaward is a book with no disappointment at all in its ending, and one of the finest executions of this genre you will find. Even the high points of Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series cannot compare to Seaward. If I didn't make it a policy to never give decimal ratings I'd have given Seaward a 9.5, since while the plot surrounding Lugan is a little under-developed this is only a miner inconvenience. I'd therefore recommend Seaward to anyone, whether you love language, magic, character relations, exploration of fundamental issues or strange worlds you will find something here, all melded into a single whole that is simply wonderful!

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