His Dark Materials

December 18th, 2004 Comments Off on His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials is Philip Pullman‘s quite imaginative, but ultimately disappointing, trilogy.

I first read about Pullman at Amazon. I was browsing the site for some fantasy books I wanted to buy, and a recommendation in one of the pages pointed to the first book of the trilogy, The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it’s called in its United Kingdom editions).

I read the book’s summary, and immediately lost interest in it. Firstly, the main character is a child, something that rarely engages my interest these days. With the exception of some classics, most of the stories where the protagonist is too young tend to be below the level of story realization I expect. Secondly, another character was an armored bear. I don’t know why, but it occurred to me at that moment that I would never read a book with an armored bear as a character. I was wrong, but it seemed to me too ridiculous a thing at the time. The book looked like an overrated fairy tale.

Time went by, and I forgot about the books. One of the blogs I read briefly mentioned the book some time later, talking — guess what — about the armored bear. But I had forgotten about the books, and only remembered the mention later when I started to read the books.

When I started buying e-books at Fictionwise, I began a wish list of the ones I wanted to buy in the future. And, once again, I came across Pullman’s work, which, if I’m not mistaken, was being offered at a discounted price at the time. For some motive, this time my opinion of the books changed. The summary at Fictionwise presented a different version of the books, much more interesting, and didn’t mention any armored bears. I bought the books.

When I finished the other books I was reading in the Palm, I downloaded the books from Fictionwise and synced them to the Palm. Even so, it took me some time to start reading. I was afraid I would not like the books. Finally, I decided to give them a go, and began the first book.

I got hooked in the first sentence. For a fantasy work, that sentence is simply perfect. As I progressed though the book I realized my first opinion about it had been completely wrong. The main character, Lyra, while being a child, is so masterfully realized that you can’t help but root for her. The secondary characters are also very interesting. And — I know this is ironic — the armored bears turned out to be fascinating characters as well. In this first book, Pullman balances rhythm and pace very well, alternating fast and slow passages for good effect. The use of language bothered me a little, because some idioms and slang seemed quite out of place, but didn’t diminish the book in any way. My only complaint about The Golden Compass is the fact that it takes too long to get anywhere. The intermediary events are interesting, but the book ends too brusquely, revealing that the trilogy is in fact a single thirteen-hundred-page book split up in three installments. So the events told in this first page are a setup for the next book, The Subtle Knife.

In this next installment, free from some restrictions imposed by the beginning of the story, Pullman reveals the real reach of this trilogy: a rereading of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Rereading because Pullman is not simply retelling Paradise Lost, but offering a completely different vision from that of the poem, although sharing its basic themes. I won’t write about how that is done, more so because my philosophic heritage would reveal too much about the book.

In The Subtle Knife, Pullman introduces a lot of new cast of characters, including the second protagonist, Will, who, while being a child as well, is also interesting on his own. Both of Pullman’s young protagonists are too intelligent for their ages (which may explain why I liked them) but the reader doesn’t feel cheated because the books explain why that is so. Will and Lyra are a fully-realized pair, and the second book is even better than the first, expanding the trilogy’s universe and explaining what’s going on in more detail. What began as a limited universe becomes a multiverse.

Like the first part of the trilogy, though, the second part still spends to much time in some events that could have been pruned to make space for more character development and plot resolution.

It’s in the third book in the trilogy that the story fails. From the first chapter of The Amber Spyglass, the reader can notice something is amiss. Although some interesting stylistic resources are used, the book lacks the strength of the first two. The events are predictable, slow, and sometimes meaningless. What was a dangerous journey towards growth becomes an aimless meandering in the final chapters of the book. The amber spyglass of the book’s title has virtually no function is the story, contrary to the golden compass of the first book’s title and the subtle knife of the second’s. Interesting characters become engaged in events with no relevance whatsoever for the story.

The book’s ending is disappointing, as mentioned in the beginning of this review. The narrative degenerates in a tale full of sentimentalism, and could engage my interest. Pullman couldn’t even knot the loose strands in the plot. Some resolutions are quite forceful in the way they were sewed in the narrative instead of being weaved in the whole of the trilogy. The trilogy’s climax is an empty event, robbing the story of a villain, and leaving a stereotypical character in its place.

Even though it doesn’t end well, the trilogy has its merits. Will and Lyra, and their friends and enemies — witches, gypsies, armored bears, mercenaries, scientists, and angels — are very well realized. The alethiometer, the golden compass that gives the first book it’s title, is a fascinating object. The experimental theology of Lyra world, and the dæmons are very imaginative and enchanting. The narrative is strong, and Pullman’s style is captivating most of the time. But a main plot device employed by the book, Dust, turns out to be a MacGuffin — at least in my opinion.

So while well imagined, the trilogy frustrated me deeply. The first two books are worth the read, because of its novelty, but the trilogy ending almost made me wish I had not read it.

By the way, a movie based on the first book of the trilogy is in the works, with other two slated to be filmed after this first is released, one for each of the other books. From what is being said, however, there are gross modifications in the story to please the American market, deviating substantially from the book. If that really happens, I guess I won’t see it.

In short, if a problematic end is not sufficient to deter you, read the books. Otherwise, don’t even start them. You have been warned.

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