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I loved, loved, loved The Golden Compass (aka The Northern Lights) when I first read it as a kid. There's an air of mystery and suspense all set against a beautiful steampunk fantasy backdrop. In this world, souls manifest outside the body as shape-shifting animals of the opposite sex, essentially acting as an audible conscience, not that they're perfectly rational. Once you reach adulthood, the daemon loses the ability to shape-shift and settles into a form matching your personality. They also cannot be too far from their owner without feeling great pain. Lyra and her daemon Pan work well as a classic comic duo on their mission to rescue their friend Roger from the GOB (known to the ragamuffins as Gobblers), a shadowy government organization that Lyra learns separates the daemon from the person permanently, causing them to become an empty shell. This first book also has talking, armored polar bears engage in gladiatorial combat for the right to the throne. The other books do not. This scene alone beats the other two books. The ending is bittersweet, with Lyra physically ascending into the stars to explore the universe, but far more uplifting and hopeful than the sequels' endings.
The sequels proceed to take this interesting premise and ruin it. Sure, we get Will and his Spectre-creating knife out of it. The Spectres are actually great villains, visible only to children but dragging anything they touch with them into the void between worlds. Then, the series becomes this sort of anti-Narnia [rather ironic, as Lewis was an atheist who was turned back to Christianity], where everything with even the slightest hint of Christianity is deemed abhorrent and evil. The angels are power-hungry maniacs that keep God (who, in this universe, is simply the oldest angel, and happens to be a senile prisoner by the time the story starts), the Catholic Church has total control over the world, and the land of the dead is essentially a big waiting room complete with Furies and grim reapers. Heaven and Hell outright exist, but we don't get to see them, really. And Pullman presents dissipating into atoms as the better alternative to immortality in Paradise. Logically, this would make Spectres the good guys, but they're still treated as villains. And then there's the scene between Lyra and Will near the end of The Amber Spyglass where it's not quite clear what's happening, but may be similar to what happened in Stephen King's IT (the infamous sewer scene, if you're unaware).
All in all, a strong beginning, a mediocre middle, and a terrible ending.
I have conflicted feelings about His Dark Materials. The first book showed Pullman in fine form. There was some seriously amazing world-building, nuanced characters, and thrilling conflicts. The second was a step-down since Pullman's problematic introduction of his religious views begins here. This is also where I lose all sympathy for Lyra and her entitled demands and begin to feel sorry for Mrs. Coulter (although I do get that Mrs. Coulter really is supposed to be a sympathetic character, so kudos to you, Mr. Pullman).
The third, the Amber Spyglass, is horrible. Plot and characterization are sacrificed just so Pullman could write about his philosophy and rant against the institutionalization of God. This could've been done more subtly, but his writing was so ham-handed in the third book that I write this series off as one that started great and ended horribly.
I don't have a problem with Pullman's religious views. HDM is his series and he's free to introduce whatever he wants. I just wish he could've streamlined his views with his writing. My problem with the series was how it turned from suspenseful and thrilling to sermonizing and, well, dull. His Dark Materials is an ambitious series that ultimately fails because it tries too hard to be universal (it's not). I know that a lot of people like the entire series, even the third book, and I respect that. As for me, I'd like to pretend that HDM stopped at Golden Compass and ended at a cliffhanger.
These are not good books. The plot is unfocused and meandering. The characters are shallow and forgettable. There's a lot of interesting fantasy ideas, but they're all thrown together with little rhyme or reason. Character spend a lot of time relying on fortune-telling to tell them what to do.
The books are, by the author's statement, a pro-atheism tract, and I am embarrassed to say that when I read them as an agnostic teenager, they convinced me to become an atheist. That ended up not lasting long, as I was quickly forced to confront the fact that Christians weren't all a bunch of evil, brainless fanatics who hate science, children and candy. Yes, really. According to Pullman, being religious means being against taking vacations or eating sweets. I was also turned off when I thought more about some of Pullman's ideas, especially the nihilistic way he seems to think that not existing after you die is something people should be really, really happy about.
There's also some hypocrisy in accusing religious people of being anti-science while promoting i-ching as a legitimate way to learn about the future.
Of all relatively recent fantasy series, His Dark Materials is probably one of those that deserves a mention as quite good. Indeed, its impossible to say Philip Pullman didn't made an efford, and shows how real fantasy authors are still existent (sadly overshadowed by shits like Twilight).
Besides finding the narrative and discussion quite interesting, it also made be wonder a lot about metaphysical concepts; its almost like a philosophy book divided in three and disguised as regular fantasy. Indeed, for those interested in philosophy this will be an interesting read. Most notably, the author also truly seems to have done some research or at least accidently made many accurate/almost accurate refferences to mythology, philosophical concepts and science.
That said, I would like to point out the God Is Evil thing isn't as shallow and ass pulled as many people think, though appearently most people can't be satisfied that "God" is just an old angel (leaving room for a real God, which is implied to be Dust) and that he wasn't killed, he just died. Granted, the author made outrageous statements, but weirdly the book doesn't come nowhere as anti-christian as presenting a non-militant atheist's view on Yahweh, which comes rather sympathetic with all the "betrayed by his underling" and "trapped in a flask" thing.
Thus, why the hell are there so many imbeciles that don't read the frekking book and instead go around moaning "oh God Is Evil Pullman's an ass bitch kill him plz" I cannot possibly understand.
His Dark Materials is supposed to be the anti-C.S. Lewis novel. Yet His Dark Materials is truly an opposite to Chronicles of Narnia's in that aside from supporting or arguing against religion, both series make the same mistakes. They use soft targets of talking animals and magical beings to attract young readers before hitting them hard with dogmatic rhetoric (see the irony) of strawman arguments and obvious villains. The story becomes a fanatical showdown of us vs them with any shades of grey completely obliterated. Though as disappointed I felt from reading the Chronicles of Narnia, I found Pullman to be ultimately worse.
To start with his characters aren't very interesting. Lyra is your typical, spoiled, upper class, brat. Yet when when she is put into danger, she can be surprisingly quick-witted and feisty. That is until she gets the Alethiometer, which is literally plot directions from point A to point B. This is worse than a magic sword or healing tears because it allows her to overcome any obstacle by simply asking the author what to do. It's like the author couldn't trust the audience to believe Lyra could outwit her opponents or defeat them with teamwork. Her character suffers more in the second book when she comes across Will, a.k.a, stock fantasy protagonist 3594, boy who wants to know about his missing father. She devolves into your typical female hang-on, being whiny and clingy without showing any sign of independence. In one memorable scene, she consults her Alethiometer, only for it to tell her Will is a murderer. She reacts positively her, saying he is capable of protecting her, which not only makes her seem weak and dependent, but stupid as well. The final book has her literally dragged by Will from place to place doing little more than reacting while Will uses his knife to fix the plot.
Will, as I established, is boring. His interactions with Lyra are either strained arguments or your typical third act love realizations. He's more proactive than Lyra, but only nominally. He's lucky he has so many different things to cut with his knife because otherwise he'd be irrelevant to the plot as well.
Pullman can't seem to reconcile his child characters doing the heavy lifting and as a result he has major accomplishments fulfilled by allies or villains. In the final book, I had a feeling that was a much more important climax to the story that was glossed over and replaced with the children cleaning up the aftermath.
Pullman shamelessly steals many of Lewis's tropes, especially the more annoying ones. Iorek is the invincible animal companion whose narrow perspective is infallible. The main characters being more vehicles of symbolism rather than multi-layered.
Some might find His Dark Materials to be offensive, but ultimately its more embarrassing than anything else. Anyone can lecture themes. It takes a true author to construct the themes into a story of conviction. Pullman doesn't cut it.
Really, it had everything that I like it a book. But no matter how many times I tried (three for the record) I eventually lost interest and gave up on it. I don't know if it was the characters or just something about the way it was written, but while I got little farther each time, I always ended up simply not caring.
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