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Book Review – His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

My intention was to stick exclusively with reviews of travel books on this site. But I’m such an opinionated literature hound that I’ve already fallen off track.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass) concludes with a wimper: Good, but nothing great. And tiring. Very. Book number three, The Amber Spyglass weighs as much as books one and two put together….and then some.
As with most trilogies, this one starts very strong and ends very weak.

But let’s get the religious stuff out of the way first – most of it at least. We’ll pick it back up at the end.

This IS NOT an anti-religious series of books. Look, we’ve got afterlife, and pre-ordainment….and, no, it doesn’t make any sense. But how can that be anti-religious?!?! It doesn’t make sense in the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the….it just doesn’t make sense.

In these books God is not God. God is an anti-God angel and the angels are actually evil…except for the good ones. But that’s OK because God is actually Dust. Dust? Well, if you’re an atheist, what’s the difference? But do these books “Kill God in the minds of children”!?!?! While Pullman may love for you to believe that, anyone who says this is not only stupid, they didn’t read the books. Pullman has, perhaps, failed spectacularly.

Ostensibly written for children, the trilogy seems larger than teenage fantasy lit. This is a decent attempt at a literary epic. Pullman has created a world similar to our own. It’s an uncomfortable similarity though, painted in Steam-Punkish shades.
Be careful though, this is not even our own universe.
The first book, The Golden Compass is very good. It works so well for many reasons. Pullman fantastically re-imagines the foundations of English children’s literature (such as the spires and towers of ancient learned locations, the spunky orphan child) and makes them brand-spanking new again. The heroine, Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon is the only rounded character of the series – and Lyra is a great character. The daemons are very compelling. In the universe of His Dark Materials every human has a daemon, a talking, shape-shifting animal familiar that serves as a lifelong companion….or a soul. A soul on the outside.

Lyra’s Uncle, Lord Asriel, is also rather well-crafted as an intriguing, mysterious adventurer with an outsized mission all his own. Its a shame that as the series progresses he gains more importance and less personality. Then there is the evil Mrs. Coulter…. the three of them are convincing characters – in the first book. The Golden Compass treats us to a very rich alternative universe packed with both familiar elements (geography, ethnic, geopolitical) and entirely fantastical elements (the armored bears, the witches). This feels good. This is fun.

Sadly, this is a trilogy in which the characters become less interesting and more irritating as the series progresses.

The second book in a trilogy is the author’s chance to shine. He or She is not bound by the introductions of the universe or the characters. Nor does the author need to stress about tying up all the plot lines either. This is the opportunity to let it go, play with the story, elaborate on the characters and the universe, laying out some teases….Instead, the second book, The Subtle Knife I feel as though we’ve been had. All that great stuff we found in the first book is gone. That wonderful creation suddenly doesn’t matter and we start to go off the deep end. And we’re lost. All of the elements I loved in The Golden Compass, the Gyptians, the panserbjörne…they were gone. Why spend that much time and energy getting us intimately acquainted with these cultures and people only to have them disappear? No teenager is going to buy that.

By the third book, Pullman pulls in still MORE main characters and still MORE odd beings and still MORE complications and still MORE unlikely, unbelievable turns-of-events – even for a fantasy series. And you STILL feel as if you’ve been had. It just got to be too much for this reader. Between the witches and the angels and the cliff-ghasts, the shadows, the specters, the ghosts, the Gallivespians, the armored bears….you come away feeling that the author is trying to beat you over the head….but with what? And to what end?

Still, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. These books are well-written and suspenseful and I just wanted to know what happens next. These aren’t awful books by any means.

From the very first page of The Amber Spyglass (#3), the vast assortment of characters and beings detract from the well-crafted main characters of the first book. Mrs. Coulter becomes less of a player and less interesting by the page. The same with Asriel and…characters that should have been better fleshed out and worthy of the weight they carried in the struggle portrayed in the books (The President, Father Gomez, Metatron…) were left virtually unknown.

Most maddening was Lyra, our heroine. She began the series as an admirable, sympathetic, tough little woman-to-be; a wonderful, powerful heroine driven to do what was right. By the end of the series her subservience to the boy Will is complete. The woman must bow before the man. The final book is much too full of “Oh Will! What will we do Will?” followed by her sobbing and Will saving the day. I found that very chauvenistic and quite a turn off.

And sex? Yes. We do have sex. You knew it the minute Will was introduced in The Subtle Knife (not so subtle were the hints…). It’s only once but…Sheesh. Dumb. Dumb enough as it is but…did it have to be THE MOST ASTOUNDING TRANSUNIVERSAL SEX OF ALL TIME? THE OUTWORLD SCREW THAT MAKES ALL THINGS CLEAN? Not only did I feel like I needed a protective spray shield but I also needed full body stupid armor. Ug. Dumb.

And does it have to be that EVERYBODY finds redemption in this novel? And I mean everybody. In just a few scraps of wood, the most vile and evil of creatures in existence – the harpies of the dead – are illuminated by the composition of Lyra’s soul….freaking ridiculous.

Still, the ideas of the books are somewhat interesting – but not earth shattering. What initially drew me to this series were the sobs of the fundamentalist Christians going on and on about how this series and the terrible movie based on The Golden Compass are going to corrupt our children and kill God and wreck havoc on our peaceable society. Laughable to say the least – but aren’t all fundamentalists. So I had to pick them up.

Hey look. If you WANT to be offended….if you CHOOSE to be offended…then it will prove offensive.

Understanding that this book was geared towards young teens, I still couldn’t help but think that any teen who had not had these doubts or questions or wonderment about God should be tossed out in the snow. Many of the “anti-God” pieces in this book were things my friends and I were arguing about over cases of Miller Genuine Draft in Stephanie Montez’s basement back when we were too young to buy Miller Genuine Draft.

There’s nothing new here.

Fantasy and science fiction are artistic realms where we are allowed to explore some of the more troubling issues of today. That said, these books would have been timelier if they had appeared in Reformation-era Europe. Perhaps. While Pullman is taking his shots at a seemingly orthodox church faction full of naked political ambition, the world he has created is a comfortable mixture of particle physics and theology – something that makes perfect sense and mirrors modern science’s birth from “natural philosophy”. Again, what is Pullman’s intention here? To me, this seems more historically honest and insightful than theologically rebellious.

So I don’t understand the fuss. In fact, there is only one atheist character in the books, Mary Malone. Mary suffered from her atheism. She felt an emptiness and a loss without her connection to God. I found her rejection of the Church odd. She ate marzipan and kissed an Italian. Whoa! I ate roasted chestnuts in Switzerland and kissed a Colombian (you know who you are) once but it didn’t make me an atheist (even if it was rather wonderful). Can’t we believe in God and enjoy the world at the same time? Pullman seems not to think so. Therefore there is something ironic about the near heavenly place in which Dr. Malone finds herself stranded (in fact, the mulefas, their trees and wheels and her relationship with them was the most interesting part of The Amber Spylgass).

In any case, Pullman doesn’t say that there is no God. In fact, he allows that there may be a creator, a greater force but the war isn’t against God. The war is against the supposed Kingdom of Heaven, a brutal dictatorship run by an angel who wields power through the Church (hence the series title reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost?) . What is atheistic about that? Nothing.

What drives the Christians nuts is that the books ask the very valid question in the reader’s mind…who does “The Church” ‘work’ for? If you haven’t asked yourself that question you too should be chucked out in the snow. Here, The Church clearly works either for a corrupt and evil angel, or for itself. Considering little things like the Crusades and the Inquisition…not to mention the insane theocratic drive of people like GW Bush, Huckabee, Palin and the nutters in the Tea Party…Pullman may have hit it on the head. God may indeed exist (for me It does) but ‘His’ spokesmen on earth, indeed his most ardent supporters, clearly do not work for US or for HIM.
They work for their own fears.
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