Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series consists of the trilogy Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, and the companion books, Lyra’s Oxford and The Book of Dust (pre-publication).
Northern Lights / The Golden Compass
Northern Lights, the first book of His Dark Materials, is set in a parallel universe, where every human has a Socratic daemon – arguably an external representation of their soul.
Lyra is an orphan living at Jordan College, Oxford. She sets a series of catastrophic events in motion when she sneaks into the Master’s study and inadvertently saves her uncle’s life. When her best friend, Roger, is kidnapped by a group of people experimenting on children, Lyra joins forces with the Gyptians in an attempt to rescue all the stolen children.
Northern Lights begins very promisingly in the first chapter, and has an excellent opening line – “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” Unfortunately it fails to live up to expectations.
Pullman has made the strange decision to portray every person in England, Europe, and Scandinavia – except for the upper class adults – as having an identical dialect, and begins to confuse himself when the narrative slips into the same dialect as the dialogue. The result is a little irritating.
I also found it difficult to get into Lyra’s skin. She seems much younger than I think she is intended to be in this book, and a few moments jar when she suddenly “acts her age”.
The Subtle Knife
Twelve year old Will Parry hides a secret from the world. Will’s father disappeared before Will was born, and Will struggles to take care of his mentally troubled mother by himself, without attracting the attention of social services to their situation.
As The Subtle Knife opens, Will realises that his mother may have real reasons for her paranoia when it becomes clear that someone really is after the documents his father sent to his mother before his disappearance. Will decides to foil the attempt and takes his mother to stay with his piano teacher for her safety. At home, Will accidentally kills the burglar with the help of a startled cat. Will takes the documents and flees to Oxford.
It doesn’t take long for the men after Will to track him down, and Will needs somewhere to hide fast. Another cat draws Will’s attention to a difference in the air, and, when he investigates, he finds himself in another world entirely. A perfect hiding place.
The Subtle Knife is a much better book than Northern Lights and it had me wishing that Philip Pullman had started his trilogy with Will’s story rather than Lyra’s. Although Pullman still has the same problem resolving his protagonist’s age to start off with, he allows Will to develop a much stronger, deeper character than the annoying Lyra of Northern Lights. And while Lyra is present as a main character in The Subtle Knife, Pullman plays her off Will’s more mature aloofness, which both subdues her character and pushes it into something a little deeper.
The Amber Spyglass
About half of The Amber Spyglass is still the story of The Subtle Knife. It seems Pullman ended The Subtle Knife where he did because of its shock value, rather than it being a logical place to end that phase of the story. There is a perfect ending to The Subtle Knife buried in The Amber Spyglass, and the spyglass of the title also doesn’t feature until after this point.
While I enjoyed The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass as a fantasy adventure with some sci fi thrown in, I was disappointed that some of the themes and storylines set up in books one and two simply fizzled out.
Perhaps the most annoying is the change of heart of the villainous Mrs Coulter, who suddenly decides to protect Lyra rather than kill her. Mrs Coulter is one of the flattest characters in the trilogy (along with Lord Asrael) and this development does her no favours – instead of the interest (she reminded me of Cruella De Vil in her one-track-mindedness) of being the vile and evil villain who would murder innocent children, Mrs Coulter becomes utterly pathetic and needy. It’s completely out of character and unconvincing, especially when, while she’s supposed to be “good”, her daemon is still pulling the wings off live bats. It was distracting and irritating to have to read sections in her point of view. She was far more interesting seen from the point of view of others, and as a one-dimensional villain.
But the whole development of Mrs Coulter’s crusade and the evil church storyline becomes pointless when it’s virtually erased and hardly mentioned again. It seems Pullman didn’t mean to argue against religion after all, and simply ceased the concept. I’m not even giving anything away by mentioning it. The fight against the god, with all the build up through the second book, is equally pointless and just as easily negated.
With all the previous plot threads out of the way, we move on to the actual story, which involves Dr Mary Malone, whom Lyra met towards the end of The Subtle Knife. Mary becomes the main protagonist in the spyglass-related portion of The Amber Spyglass, when she finds her way through numerous doorways to an unusual world and decides to stay for a while. This is a world populated with a fascinating people who have had a vastly different evolution to humans, and Mary learns to communicate with and understand these people. Together, they pool the scientific knowledge and technical skill of their two worlds to learn what Dust really is and how to save it across all worlds.
The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass are not ideal for very young or sensitive readers, due to some possibly disturbing scenes involving injuries, cruelty, and death. But more mature readers will find much to enjoy, especially in the second and third books of the trilogy.
Review copyright © Elsa Neal 2006-2007
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