This mini-site serves as companion to Moonbound, the new novel by Robin Sloan, published by MCD×FSG.

Just give me a checklist

The simplest suspense

One of the most formative reads of my life was Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence. The books were orig­i­nally published in the 1960s and 1970s; I suppose I read them in the early 1990s. I would have been ten or twelve.

The first book in the sequence towers above the rest. The others are good in different ways, and it’s satis­fying to complete the story, but none are as powerful a dose of pure vibes as The Dark Is Rising.

Here we find the donegality of C. S. Lewis:

Lovers of romances go back and back to such stories in the same way that we go back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for … what? for itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere — to Donegal for its Done­gality and London for its Londonness. It is noto­ri­ously difficult to put these tastes into words.

The Dark Is Rising offers above all “its whole atmosphere”. Ask me to summarize the plot, and I might sketch the beginning accurately … but anything after that is a haze of galloping horses and whirling snow. But, ah, that’s the thing: ask me to recollect images from The Dark Is Rising, and I’ll go on all day, one after another. A sprig of holly set above the door. A window banging open, a pile of snow melting on the carpet. A warm crowded household all cozied up for Christmas. A tree-lined lane.

Early on, our protagonist, young Will, discovers an odd object, a sort of proto-cross as wide as his palm, carved from wood — a sign. He learns that he will collect six of these signs: wood followed by bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone.

Each of these proto-crosses he will thread onto his belt, producing a Batman-style accessory of symbolic power.

Obviously, this rules.

It helped that I have a midwinter birthday. Espe­cially as a young person, December was a thrill: birthday, winter vacation, Christmas and its Carol, New Year’s Day, the whole enchilada.

But of course my midwinter, even its basic climate, wasn’t much like Will’s. His was hyperreal, hypercozy, hyperhaunted — and he had the signs.

What I love best about The Dark Is Rising is that it’s both subtle and simple.

Subtle, because it takes great skill to produce such a powerful atmosphere. It emerges from an accu­mu­la­tion of details, from the vibration of place against symbol. Susan Cooper under­stood exactly which keys to play on the Anglo­phone keyboard, in order to build the most delicious chords.

Simple, because it’s a checklist! You always know where you are, and what remains, because at the beginning you learn about the six signs, and you know by the end you’ll have collected them all.

How many grand YA odysseys commence this way? It’s ubiq­ui­tous because it works. Of course, there are better and worse treatments. You hope that some items will be obtained in surprising ways; ideally, one item will have been there all along.

The checklist makes me think also of The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, which I encountered shortly after The Dark Is Rising, following it through five or six of its glaciating volumes. (The total number turned out to be fourteen.)

In Robert Jordan’s world, there is a coterie of fearsome Forsaken — powerful magicians who turned bad, very bad. They were trapped in a meta­phys­ical prison (a la Zod in the Phantom Zone) but, as the series commences, they have escaped. Though you learn their names early on, it takes a foot and a half of fantasy novels to meet them all, and that slow itinerary is delicious. You’ve met Lanfear, you’ve met Ishamael … but what about Rahvin? Where’s Moghedien?? For a long stretch of reading, you don’t know anything except the names, but the names are — the checklist is — enough.

Susan Cooper’s checklist was, for me, the first, and it’s still the best. There’s a checklist in Moonbound, one that this first book barely begins; it’s a list of names, like Robert Jordan’s. Even though I’m writing this checklist rather than reading it, the effect is, surprisingly, unchanged.

What a terrific piece of literary machinery: suspense in plain sight; the satis­fac­tion of setting them up and knocking them down.

First published: June 2024
Last updated: June 2024