Book Review: “His Dark Materials” Trilogy by Philip Pullman

I had originally had these all planned out as a series of three reviews, but realized that it would put my First Impression Friday posts too far away from the book reviews of the same (we’re talking three weeks between a First Impression Friday post and a book review, when I’d finished reading the book like, weeks before), so I decided to consolidate all three books into this one post.

Also, because this trilogy is over 20 years old, you can expect spoilers in the reviews below.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS

I’ll give it to Philip Pullman – he has written a story where so have to find out what’s coming next. And I am shocked at the fact that this book series was published in the mid-90s and I have never heard a single spoiler for them, ever. When the movie came out years ago (2007, to be exact), I had no interest in seeing it, and my mom wouldn’t let us see it. I fully understand why now.

As I mentioned in my First Impression Friday post, Lyra is an “orphaned” child living alone at Jordan college in Oxford (but it’s not the Oxford of our world, as everyone in this world has a daemon “familiar,” of sorts), until her uncle comes to visit and finds her hiding in a wardrobe. This visit sets off a series of events that leads to Lyra discovering her true parentage and discovering that she means more to the fate of the world than she would have ever dreamed.

I think the most interesting aspect of the book is Pullman’s occasional narrative diversion from Lyra’s story to the nearby adults. In the beginning, the Master of Jordan college talks about Lyra to a coworker long after Lyra has gone to bed. At another point, we see the first of a string of missing kids be taken. Several talks seem to take place while Lyra is sleeping just a few yards away. It’s always adults talking, and they always know way more than Lyra does (and are, in turn, letting the reader in on a small secret and hoping we can pick up on what is happening without the author forcing it down our throats). As a child, Lyra has no reason to look beyond her own self, and the adults are aware of this. Lyra often embellishes the tales she tells to other children, and it sounds exactly like something I would have done when I was 10 years old.

Thankfully, while Lyra is a little irritating at points (but that could just be me and my impatience showing), she is well-written as a heroine that kids can look up to, and she is brave in the face of everything. (Which is truly refreshing, especially since I’ve read books that are kid-focused that make me want to put the kid in time out forever, like Harriet the Spy.)

Pullman’s world is different than our own and yet similar, and I can’t wait to see what happens in book two. The author’s note at the beginning of this one says that book two takes place in “our own world,” while book one took place in a world “like ours, but different.” I think that brings me to my main issue with the book: it is a fantasy novel for kids, but it contains no maps! I know that a lot of the locals are based on England (they’ve got London and Oxford!), and one of the men later on declares himself to be a Texan, but I would have loved a map of the world, if just to see how far our heroes have traveled and how far they still have to go!

All in all, while it’s a kid’s fiction book, the writing is much more “adult” than something like, say, the Percy Jackson series that I just finished. And that may be because the point of view is third person instead of first person, but I am very much enjoying the series, and I think these are going to push me over my 50 book goal for the year.

I’ll have to give The Golden Compass a 4.5/5 star rating, because there are a few things I could quibble with (but I will admit, they may be more me issues than book issues, so they don’t detract from the reading experience).

THE SUBTLE KNIFE

The Subtle Knife is the second book in the Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, and it introduces the reader to the concept of world-hopping, where an observant person can move between worlds by finding the windows left open by others. (Spoiler alert: the windows are made by those who cut them open with the titular Subtle Knife and don’t close them.)

Lyra is joined in this book by Will, who is from the modern (well, 1990s) version of Oxford, completely different from Lyra’s Oxford. They meet in a completely separate world that is run by children, as all of the adults have been scared off by ghouls the children dub “Specters,” for they eat the souls of adults but pay no attention to children. Will agrees to take Lyra to his Oxford to help her find a Scholar (“You mean a scientist,” he helpfully tells her, because of her old-fashioned way of thinking and speaking) to assist in her questions about the Dust. Meanwhile, Will is trying to track down information about his father, who vanished on an Arctic expedition soon after Will was born.

What follows is a lot of world-hopping, and we get extra time with people who are not Will or Lyra, such as our Texan Aeronaut and the Witches. Mrs. Coulter makes her appearance, but she is only seen through the eyes of others; we never hear from her directly. While the first book was 95% Lyra with a few others mixed in to give foreshadowing, this book gives a good 60%-40% split, I think, between the kids and the others in the world(s). We are introduced to the titular Subtle Knife, and we are shown just how strong a witch’s need for revenge is. We are given even more information as to who Lyra really is, and why there are people from all across the different worlds looking for her – she’s supposedly the reincarnation of Eve, and different sectors are racing to make sure she either doesn’t fall again or to ensure she does.

And of course, the book ends with a massive cliffhanger, even more than the previous book, and I am seriously hoping that the last book doesn’t suffer from the terrible “third book flop” that I’ve had happen with so many series that I’ve read). Is this book as good as the first one? Not quite, even though Lyra has stopped being such a jerk all the time (although she is still a jerk to Will in the beginning), so I’d give it a 4/5 star rating. I understand it’s a kid’s series (even though it really shouldn’t be, due to subject matters – they talk about genital mutilation in this one, for example!), but we’re still not quite there yet. Things start to slip in this book, and that gives me pause about the next one.

THE AMBER SPYGLASS

This is not a series for children. This should not be shelved in the “kid’s fiction” section at bookstores; it should live in the “young adult” section instead. While the main characters, Lyra and Will, may only be 12 years old, this is in no way a book for 12-year-olds (case in point: the heavy handed themes of religion throughout).

I spent most of this book (read in the span of 4 hours on December 27) turning pages, horrified by what I was reading. In this book, friends and allies die gruesome deaths, Will kills someone else, and the kids visit the Land of the Dead. All bright and happy things, right?

In terms of a conclusion to a series, The Amber Spyglass wraps it up, but not very neatly or in a satisfying way. It just takes a hot minute to get to that ending. (I’m not sure if the book is actually longer than the others or not, as the first two books I read were hardbacks and this one was a mass market paperback, so my concept of page numbers is highly skewed.) In comparison to the previous two books, there were a few sections that I admit I speed-read through, because they were boring me and I wanted to move the story along.

First, let’s talk about the characters: In The Golden Compass, Lyra is an absolute brat who plans her own rescue trip to save the kids from the Gobblers. In The Amber Spyglass, Lyra can’t take a step without asking Will if it’s okay. It’s like The Subtle Knife shifted Lyra from being the main character to being a simpering background “female” that doesn’t get to do much after Will receives the knife from the guy. Will comes to dominate everything, and don’t even get me started on their “love story,” where they realize they are deeply and irreversibly in love with each other, and vow to marry each other and never leave…all at the ripe young age of twelve. (After I finished the book, I took it into the office where my husband was sitting and went “THEY’RE TWELVE! TWELVE! What is THIS NONSENSE?!” and he just laughed. If I was still with the same guy I thought I had the BIGGEST crush on when I was twelve years old, then I would be living an incredibly different lifestyle than I am now, and I’m sure I’d be miserable.)

Dr. Mary Mallon, who was introduced in Book 2 as a Scholar/Scientist studying “the Shadows” (which I think is supposed to be dark matter, but is known in Lyra’s world as Dust), finds herself in a different world in this one, and we finally get the backstory of why she quit being a nun. It’s because she had some marzipan and kissed an Italian guy, and that made her throw her entire life away. (I’m slightly paraphrasing, but holy cow, was this an awful backstory and reduces what would have otherwise been a semi-strong STEM woman into a silly girl who listens only to her heart and nothing else.)

Lyra’s mother, Mrs. Coulter, has the biggest and most unbelievable change of heart in this book, claiming that looking at Lyra in the cage in book one (where they were going to sever her from her daemon) turned on her “motherly love,” and as such there is nothing she would not do to get her daughter back. It’s absolute drivel, and turns what was otherwise a terrifying villain into a puppet for the author. The redemption arc is completely unbelievable (maybe they should take lessons from the writers of Avatar: The Last Airbender), and I feel no emotional attachment to this sudden change of heart.

But the biggest issue with this book – and the reason I know it’s not for children – is Pullman’s anti-church narrative. He claims that in this world, the Magisterium (the main “head” of the church, I think is the best way to describe it) dominates absolutely everything and is absolutely corrupted and evil from the inside out. There is no redemption here, no “singular voice of goodness/reason” coming out of it – it’s completely evil and nasty from the very core. The church rules everything, he claims – except there is not a single mention of religious services, religious holidays, key religious figures like angels (until the last book when they show up to fight, but that’s another rant that I don’t think I’ll do today). Nobody even prays. For an all-dominating entity, there should have at least been some mention of services that people would be forced to attend, wouldn’t you think? The Church is against all evil – except they’re not at war with the Witches (paganism), nor are they attempting to convert the other species on their planet (like the armored bears) to their same religion. They’re just kind of…there. Attempting to be a menacing presence, but failing.

Then there’s the whole “prophecy” surrounding Lyra, where she is supposed to be the next Eve (from the Garden of Eden in Genesis), and the different forces in the book are supposedly fighting for her to either rise or fall. It never really comes to fruition, and the book ends with an angel showing up, explaining everything to Will and Lyra, who then decide to separate forever and live in their own worlds to build the “Republic of Heaven” (since the “Kingdom” of Heaven has been destroyed).

There was so much potential to this book, and yet Pullman went off on several tangents that never pulled together. The Golden Compass had so many interesting parts to it, which sort of got lost in The Subtle Knife, and where The Amber Spyglass absolutely dropped the ball. I’d hesitate to give it a 1/5 star rating, as there were a few fun things in this (like their visit to the world of the dead, and the species of miniature spies), but the entire book is a mess. I said in the beginning that this isn’t a book for children, but I think I should be more accurate and say this isn’t a book for anyone. Read The Golden Compass if you have to, but pretend that it ends there and that cliffhanger is all that you’ll ever get. Make up your own ending to the tale. Just do yourself a favor and pretend The Amber Spyglass doesn’t exist.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go stick my head in a freezer to cool down over this one.

And as always, keep reading.

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