by Philip Pullman
Actually three separate books, His Dark Materials is a sci-fi/fantasy epic centered around two children from different worlds. The Golden Compass, set in an alternate Europe, introduces Lyra Belacqua and follows her from Oxford to the Arctic as she searches for her friend Roger and her Uncle Asriel, both of whom may be in danger. The second book, The Subtle Knife, brings Lyra together with Will Parry, a resident of our world who stumbles into another. And in the finale, The Amber Spyglass, a bunch of crazy and inexplicable shit happens.
While I’m reviewing these books together, it should be noted that each of them has a unique tone. Compass, definitely my favorite, is an innovative fantasy adventure, and manages to introduce wholly new concepts without confusing the audience. Spyglass, on the other hand, at times seemed to suffer from the same affliction that many final installments have; namely, there’s too much going on, and Pullman seems to be trying really hard to make everything meaningful. (Think Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or Mockingjay.) Meanwhile, Subtle Knife, while not without its charm, serves mainly as a bridge between the other two books. So we end up with a somewhat uneven series, in quality as well as tone, but Pullman always manages to come up with something new and exciting to bring you back in.
Generally, he’s able to do this because he has a talent for coming up with cool shit, in which His Dark Materials is not lacking. Probably the coolest idea in these books shows up halfway through Compass: the armored bears, or panserbjørne. These are sentient polar bears that hang out up north and do awesome things. Lyra encounters one of these bears, Iorek Byrnison, on her travels through the north, and attempts to help him usurp the throne of the bear kingdom. Iorek has to fight the current king in paw-to-paw combat (of course he does) while Lyra and the rest of the panserbjørne watch. The two bears fight to the death and I don’t want to give away too much but they beat the shit out of each other and one bear punches the other bear’s jaw clean off! Just typing that last sentence got me excited. Sorry.
While it’s inconceivable to me that anyone wouldn’t enjoy an armored bear death match, sometimes Pullman invented stuff that just didn’t do it for me. In Spyglass– remember, this is when all the crazy shit happens- one of the characters enters a world where deer-like beings have evolved wheels, instead of legs, as their means of propulsion. This makes absolutely no sense, but Pullman tries to make it seem cosmically significant. The wheels come from the trees, the creatures use the wheels, eventually the wheels break, the seed pops out and grows to be another tree, etc. Circle of life. Honestly though… it’s just not that cool. The books contain some fantastic stuff, like panserbjørne, daemons, the alethiometer, the subtle knife, Dust- and then there are the less interesting characters and concepts, or cool ideas that never really panned out.
But basically, I think it’s a pretty good series. There is one thing I should mention: these books are somewhat infamous works of atheism, and something of a counterargument to The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. The premise of both series is essentially the same: some normal kids go to strange worlds and find themselves fighting in an existential conflict.
But whereas Lewis builds the Aslan-as-Jesus allegory, in which God is a badass lion and basically the hero of Narnia, Pullman portrays God and the church as malevolent, ignorant, and sometimes evil. Compass started off with Lyra questioning religious teachings, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but Spyglass really goes hard with its atheism. Of course, I think you can enjoy Narnia without buying into all of the religious themes, so you can probably enjoy His Dark Materials and just ignore the anti-God stuff. I just thought I should mention it.
If you can get over that, and you’re not embarrassed reading a ‘young adult’ series, think about checking it out. Warning: they made a film out of The Golden Compass. It was terrible. But because it had Eva Green, I feel obligated to share the following picture with you.
A bear punches another bear’s jaw off. That alone would warrant my recommendation.