Book Review: His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Published by Random House Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Steampunk
Source: Purchased

A note before I begin this review: I started reading the His Dark Materials trilogy before I started this blog, and read six books I had been waiting for in between The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, so I did not write down many notes or thoughts along the way like I plan on doing with the books I review in the future, which is why I’m making this one review rather than three.

His Dark Materials trilogy

Series: His Dark Materials
Books: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Random House
Type: Fiction
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Adventure, Steampunk
Rating: 5 stars

Acquired: Purchased

My Synopsis: His Dark Materials is a trilogy that starts out being about a girl named Lyra Belacqua who lives in a world somewhat like our own, but where every person has a creature known as a daemon connected to them. It hurts to go too far from one’s daemon, and one’s fate is linked to that of their daemon. At the beginning of The Golden Compass, Lyra is an orphan living in Oxford’s Jordan College whose only known relative is her uncle, Lord Asriel, and her best friend a servant boy named Roger. As the story progresses, she is thrust into a world of mystery and intrigue thanks to the stories of a group of kidnappers known as the ‘Gobblers,’ something called Dust, and a device called an alethiometer.

The second installment, The Subtle Knife, introduces Will Parry, a young boy who lives with his mentally ill mother in our world, dreaming of the day he’ll find his father who disappeared when Will was a baby. His life has just undergone a drastic change, there are scary men looking for something his mother has, and he does everything he can to protect his mother and disappear with the leather writing case. His need to hide leads him to finding a window into another seemingly empty world where he meets Lyra and together they try to find out more about Dust (known in our world as Shadows) and search for Will’s father.

The Amber Spyglass finds Lyra and Will separated – Lyra being held hostage and kept in a poisoned sleep by the formidable Mrs. Coulter, and Will in the company of angels telling him to go help Lord Asriel with his plans, but all Will wants to do is find Lyra. But there are others who want to find Lyra too. Dr. Mary Malone, a physicist specializing in Dark Matter whom Lyra met in our world, has found her way through the same window Will did when he was on the run thanks to the Shadows which have told her she must find both Lyra and Will. Lord Asriel, knowing she is important to the war he is waging, wants to find Lyra to have her on his side, and a sect of his enemies, the Consistorial Court of Discipline, is doing the same. Also looking for Lyra is her friend Iorek Byrnison who has reclaimed his rightful place as king of the armored bears.

My Thoughts: I first heard about His Dark Materials back in the early 2000’s and unfortunately never read it. Back then I was looking for more fantasy books that could hold my interest and were somewhat similar to Harry Potter. What held me back, however, was the backlash it received from religious critics. At the time I was a good little Catholic school girl, and already felt guilty for reading Harry Potter even though I knew they were wrong about Harry Potter being linked to Satanism, and I ultimately couldn’t get past it. Even when the movie adaptation of The Golden Compass was released in 2007 and I had read even more books that had religious critics circling them (including Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code), I still could not pick up the books. Thankfully, at the encouragement of a friend who reads similar books to myself, and has introduced me to some incredible books, I finally decided to start reading them.

Before going any further, I would like to say that there only three things that bothered me about this series, and they didn’t have anything to do with the way religion was portrayed, though I do understand why it ruffled some people’s feathers. For me, the most upsetting parts of the series as a whole were when a)one of the main characters was injured in a fight and would not stop bleeding for chapters on end, b)a rabbit was seemingly killed – both of which happened in The Subtle Knife – and c)when two characters were having an intense fight in The Golden Compass. I tend to be rather sensitive to things like that, more so when I’m reading or someone is describing things to me, and those scenes really got to me where I had to stop reading for a bit and catch my breath each time. There were other moments of violence and death, but none as bothersome as those in regards to my comfort.

With that said, what drew me in right from the start was introductory page to The Golden Compass wherein it states, “The first volume is set in a universe like ours, but different in many ways. The second volume is set in the universe we know. The third volume will move between the universes.” Maybe I’m easy to impress or please, but there was just something about being told straight up, and in such a simple way, ‘this is what’s going to happen’ that made me that more eager to turn the pages.

When The Golden Compass began, the storyline seemed very straightforward. Lyra was going to find some way to follow her uncle Lord Asriel to the North and investigate Dust. But then came the twists. I learned about the Gobblers taking children, and then Lyra’s friend Roger seemed to be kidnapped, so it looked like instead she was going to try and rescue him. Not so! Because then she went off to live with Mrs. Coulter and seemingly forgot about Roger and her life at Jordan College. Somehow, Philip Pullman managed to connect all three of these elements (and more!) into a wonderful story of friendship, devotion, mystery, intrigue, adventure, rescue, fantasy, science, religion, politics, the beginnings of coming-of-age, and life in general (all in the first book), and left me hanging with such a great cliffhanger of an ending that would leave any reader begging for more. If I had read this story when it was first released, there is no question, I would have been marking down the days until each new book was out on the shelves so I could buy and devour them.

Even in introducing more and more characters and elements to the story with each installment, Pullman kept me guessing and wanting until the very end. Though at times with all the different storylines I wondered what such-and-such a character was up to, or when different groups of characters would meet, I was still so invested in the character(s) and storyline I was currently reading, I kept on going and turning the pages until I found find out just what would happen next. At times there were pleasant surprises that made me laugh, other times there were moments of anguish and I needed to either stop reading for a moment (sometimes longer) to dry my eyes, or reread the last few sentences to make sure I read them right because they were so difficult to grasp.

I found all the characters to be well-developed with their own sets of issues, problems, beliefs, and – most importantly – personalities. Though Lyra is the main character in the first book, and therefore the introductory character to the world(s) of His Dark Materials, the character that resonates with me most is Will. The introduction to Will is at the very beginning of the second installment, when he visits his former piano teacher and asks her to look after his mother. Will has been looking after his mentally ill mother on his own for years so as not to let anyone else find out about her illness and separate the two of them. He also dreams of finding his explorer father, hoping that one day the three of them can become a family and that his father will be able to “fix” his mother. Between these two major aspects of Will’s backstory and the ones we learn as the story progresses in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, we learn he is loyal and has a good sense of what is right and wrong, but  isn’t afraid to do what is necessary even when he himself doesn’t like it.

What drew me to Will’s character is the similarities between us. 1)The only things he knows about his father are stories that his mother has told him when she was in the right state of mind. I, too, have grown up hearing stories of a relative that I have never known – my maternal grandfather who died before I was born, and there is just something about him and the way members of my family speak of him that makes me want to know as much about him as possible and wonder what it would have been like to know him, even if for only a short while. While I don’t believe my grandfather could have fixed certain aspects of my life that I wish had been different, he does also bear some similarities to Will’s father in his own right. While Will’s father was an explorer, my grandfather was a Staff Sergeant in the US Army during World War II and a POW at German prison camp, Stalag 17 and, though my grandfather and Will’s father were kept apart from their families for different reasons, Will’s desperate desire to find his father, and Will’s father’s struggle to get home, gave me new insight to what my grandfather and his family went through. 2)His relationship with his mentally ill mother. I have been dealing with anxiety and depression since my early teens, and to read about a boy who loves his mother so much to not only protect her, but also go along with her needs to do certain things (ie. touch every slat in every single bench by the pond) was very touching and, at times, varied between heartwarming and heartbreaking. Although you want to see a parent being able to take care of their child, and it can be unsettling to see the child taking on the role of parent, there is also that sense of unconditional love between a son and his mother who isn’t like all the other mothers he’s met and, given the choice, he might not have chosen.

In addition, Philip Pullman’s world building in His Dark Materials is incredible. The fact that he did so well creating Lyra’s world with the daemons, armored bears, Dust, etc. would have been enough, but then he had to go and create the world “in between” hers and ours where Will and Lyra thought, for a time, that they were safe, as well as others, and he just… blew my mind. It’s not easy to create an entirely different world, with different laws, religions, cultures, etc. and he managed to do it multiple times in the same story. My favorite part of his world building in this series, however, is most definitely the daemons. The idea that there is always someone with us, that we are never alone, and they reflect who we are as a person is very appealing to me. With Will being from our world and meeting Lyra, Pullman was able to introduce the idea through Lyra that not having a daemon doesn’t mean we are alone, but rather that we have our daemons inside us. That was a very powerful thought for me personally, and one I hope will help anyone reading the series at any point in their lives realize that they aren’t alone either.

Final Words: I loved this trilogy. I wish it didn’t have to end, just like with all books I’ve fallen in love with. I recommend this trilogy to anyone searching for a good story to read who doesn’t mind reading non-standalone books, so long as they aren’t horribly offended by violence, blood, or talks of the Church being in the wrong and God being nonexistent. I especially recommend it to young people who are finding themselves, I think they’ll find a lot of comfort in it as Will and Lyra grow and change and deal with things going on around them.


Comments (4) »

Alison L - September 30, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

If you can’t get enough of Lyra’s world, there are two companion novels, Lyra’s Oxford (the red book about Lyra set post-HDM) and Once Upon a Time in the North (the blue book about Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison set pre-HDM). Supposedly there will someday be The Book of Dust and a book about Will (the green book). Fingers crossed those actually get written and published.

Christine - September 30, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

Oh man if those get written, I will be at the bookstore as early as I can on release day! In the meantime, I’ll look into Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North. Thanks so much! 😀

Alison L - September 30, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

Of course! I can totally related to the pain of wanting more books and know there are no more books.

On a related note, when I was first reading HDM, I made my mom take me to the book store immediately after I finished The Subtle Knife so I could buy The Amber Spyglass and keep reading.

[…] 1. Book Review: His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman […]

Leave a comment

XHTML » You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

© 2013 - 2013 Readerly Musings - Designed by NBdesigns