His Dark Materials

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. His Dark MaterialsCompass, 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.

Totally necessary picture of Eva Green as the witch Serafina Pekkala

Totally necessary still of Eva Green as the witch Serafina Pekkala

A bear punches another bear’s jaw off. That alone would warrant my recommendation.

Catching Fire and Mockingjay

by Suzanne Collins

 

I know I’m lame for reading these. You should’ve seen my shame when the lady at Barnes & Noble surmised that I must’ve read the first one and run out to buy the next two. Yes, ma’am, that’s exactly what happened. But I bought them, I read them, and my blog is for book reviews, so here we are.

I’m reviewing them together. Nobody is going to read Mockingjay without having read the first two, and if you liked The Hunger Games enough to read Catching Fire you’re probably gonna go all the way. On top of that, though Collins divided it into two books it really is one story: how Katniss, her friends and family, and the country of Panem deal with the repercussions of the 74th Hunger Games. After their survival and emergence as victors, Katniss and Peeta have become celebrities and symbols. As such, all players in the now turbulent Panem seek to use them in propaganda, parts that they must play if they want to keep themselves, their families, and each other safe.

Yea, it’s really no surprise that I liked these books, given that I liked the first, but I was surprised by the direction they took, especially Mockingjay. The main characters, including Katniss, Peeta, and their alcoholic mentor Haymitch, were well written in The Hunger Games, but Collins manages to grow them in interesting ways throughout the later installments. Lesser characters, such as Katniss’ sister Primrose and her old friend, Gale Hawthorne, are fleshed out a bit, which is a relief, since much of the drama revolves around them. Prim was the reason for Katniss leaving her home and risking her life, yet The Hunger Games never really gave us much time to get to know her. Likewise with Gale, who is set up as Peeta’s romantic rival.

These books are very different from most young adult fiction. It remains true in Catching Fire and Mockingjay that not much is black and white for Katniss; she is not given many easy choices, and often realizes that she directly or indirectly allowed horrible things to happen. Very early on in Catching Fire, she and Peeta say the wrong things on their national tour- where they must pretend to be loyal to the Capitol- and the Capitol retaliates by summarily executing innocent citizens. Katniss blames herself for these deaths, and they are just the first of many who will suffer for her mistakes.

I think what most impressed me about these novels was the way that Collins evokes real events, historical and contemporary. I wrote of The Hunger Games that District 12 reminded me of North Korea during the famine; the people are hungry and hopeless. As Katniss and Peeta inspire a revolution countrywide, I was reminded of many scenes, from World War II to the Arab Spring. The public displays of cruelty could’ve come from Libya; the scenes of urban warfare from yesterday’s stories out of Homs, Syria. I realize that Collins wrote the books before these events, which makes the parallels all the more interesting.

Collins also manages to tell a pretty compelling story of insurgency, and seems to know what she’s talking about. Everything from organization to the use of propaganda seem straight out of the Taliban’s playbook. Again, this just surprises me coming from a book for young adults, who are perhaps used to the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight, which aren’t known for their accurate reflection of modern warfare.

Speaking of the latter series, one of the things I didn’t like was the love triangle among Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. I mean, we spent the whole first book getting to know Peeta, and hearing how confused Katniss is about which of her feelings, if any, are real, and then all of a sudden she can’t decide between Gale and Peeta? Then she likes one, then the other, then a dude kisses her, and you just start thinking… what a slut. No, I’m kidding, but it gets irritating, and reminds me of what the Twilight series must be like. What I’m imagining, I mean, cause I didn’t read that shit.

Also, I felt like while Catching Fire was impeccably plotted, the pacing of Mockingbird was a little bit off. There might be a couple of chapters based around one relatively minor event, while huge battles seem to be cut short. The last few chapters especially seemed to be rushed, even though they were perhaps some of the most important and dramatic in the whole series. The book is interesting enough that this isn’t a major problem, but I think Mockingjay might’ve been better as two books.

On the whole I really liked this series, and felt like Catching Fire and Mockingjay actually improved on The Hunger Games in some respects.