EPS Review #29 - His Dark Materials

A trilogy: Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US); The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman, all recently published.

A colleague pointed out these books on Amazon, where the reviews are all ecstatic. I immediately ordered the first two for Ross (the last volume is only in hardback). In the first volume we meet the young girl Lyra, in a parallel Oxford which is sort of Victorian, but scientifically advanced. Everyone has a daemon, or spirit animal. The Church is very powerful. Scientists are examining the link between people and their daemons, and why children's daemons are different - they can change form, while daemons of adults "settle" into a rabbit, or monkey, or leopard, or whatever. Lyra's parents turn out to be two powerful, possibly evil, people, involved in these studies. Most of the science fiction elements tie in with modern theories of physics - dark matter, rolled-up dimensions. Soon we are involved in a quest to the arctic, where armored polar bears dwell, and the barrier between worlds is thin.

After the first volume, I decided I was in no hurry to give the book to Ross - it is too dark, and has none of the humor he appreciates so much in Harry Potter. But since I already owned the second volume, I continued on, and was glad I did, for the pace picks up considerably. So then I bought volume three, and finished it all off. It develops into a multi-world battle and quest, and gets very biblical, though in a new way, since it mostly seems that the rebel angels were the good guys. There are many quotes from Blake and Milton. I liked the armored bears and their different ways, and I liked the witches and their unhappy loves. Each book has an interesting magical object. The adult characters are complex (Mrs Coulter is a pleasure), but always on the sidelines. It ends as a love story, which is heart-wrenching or corny depending on your frame of mind. I can imagine that in a few years Ross would find it very deep and gripping.

Paul wrote: in a strange way I am reminded of Hyperion - have you read it? (and I do not mean the work by Keats after which this scifi book is named)

I replied: Yeah, excellent series (except the third, I think). Very different feel, though. Hyperion much more hard sci-fi, lots of shootin. The Pullman books are more moral and simple.

David wrote: How does it compare to Tolkien? At all?

I replied: I think the big difference from Tolkien is that Pullman's heroes are two children. True, the hobbits are child-like, but everyone is bascially adult -- I wonder if this may not be *more* appealing to a child, at least past a certain age. I think Pullman also tries for a more mixed moral situation than plainly evil Mr Sauron of Mordor. Both pay more attention to artistic detail than most fantasy writers, but I think Tolkien still takes the prize there. He was obsessed, after all.

Ewan wrote: I agree with your review. Trying to find something which isn't harry potter for isabelle to read. Just finished the last one "The Amber Spyglass" and I thought they were great. Corny in places but fantastic imagination. You know that he wrote I was a Rat which is on the TV on Sunday nights?

Ed wrote: I just read all three of these in about 10 days flat. They were great. The Subtle Knife was the best. I was a little fed up with the Eden-like world in the last one, although I liked the physics professor. Her full potential wasn't necessarily realized, I thought. How about the lame death of the Authority? and the highly political kingdom of heaven??