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The Golden Compass, His Dark Materials

I took just a little too long in getting to this review - the books aren't as fresh in my mind as they could have been. I apologize for that, but I still think that some people might be interested in my general impressions, especially considering that the first movie will be coming out shortly. Plus, it's not like I was planning on doing a detailed summary of the entire plot.

Something to get out of the way right at the beginning, is to say that if you're a devout Christian, and you don't appreciate criticism of your religion, these books aren't for you. They're a kind of anti-Chronicles of Narnia, and certainly don't present Christianity in the best light. Now, if that sort of thing doesn't bother you too much, and you can appreciate a work of fiction based on a modified version of Christianity, read on...

His Dark Materials is a trilogy written by Philip Pullman. It consists of three books, The Golden Compass (titled Northern Lights in some other countries, notably the UK), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The story focuses mostly on a girl named Lyra Belacqua. She's from a universe very similar to ours, but not quite the same. The most obvious difference is that in her universe, people's souls are tangible, in the form of animal companions known as daemons, that accompany the people throughout their lives. The difference that I personally thought was most fascinating, and which was actually one of my favorite parts of the entire trilogy, is the way events had played out slightly differently in Lyra's world. For example, science and technology had developed at slighly different rates than in our universe, with scientists studying quantum mechanics, but with cars not yet having been invented. These differences also affected political & cultural aspects of the world - for example, the Muscovites living in what we would call Russia, and "New France" still being in use to describe Canada (in fact, there's a Wikipedia entry on some of this terminology).

At the start of the story, Lyra had lived her whole life so far at Jordan College, Oxford, as an orphan raised by the professors. When the Lord Asriel visited the college, Lyra snuck into the meeting where he discussed a strange "Dust" that he'd been studying in the polar regions. Not long after, the beautiful Mrs. Coulter arrived to take Lyra into her custody, to give her a proper education and upbringing. The morning she was to leave, the headmaster of the college secretly called Lyra to his office, and gave her a strange device. Without time to give her proper instruction, all he could tell her was, "It is the Alethiometer. It tells the truth. As for how to read it, you'll have to learn by yourself." Later that day, she left Oxford, and her adventure began.

All in all, I liked the books, but didn't consider them great. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I bought them largely on the recommendation of several commenters on another blog, in a discussion on the last book in the Harry Potter series. Most of those commenters considered the Dark Materials trilogy to be far superior. I also started reading the novels knowing that they were critical of Christianity, and with my recent "deconversion," I really wanted to like a book with that type of theme. Unfortunately, these books weren't the masterpieces I had hoped for. The style of writing took a while to grow on me - the books didn't grab me right from the very beginning. The ending also left me a little less than completely satisfied. I appreciate that Pullman didn't give it a Disney, and they all lived happily ever after, ending. But, it almost seemed to me that he forced some of the negative outcomes. It was as if he had decided from the outset that his story was going to have a bittersweet ending, so he had to invent the plot devices to get it there.

Before you continue reading this paragraph, I should give a spoiler warning. I'll try not to give away anything too big, but this paragraph may give away a little more than some readers would like to know... Probably the biggest thing that bothered me about this story, is that it still set humans as being apart from other animals (and the related sentient beings from parallel universes, but I'll just call them all "human" for this discussion, so I don't have to keep putting that disclaimer). It was only humans that had souls and daemons, and only humans that got to go to the afterlife. Why? Perhaps this had something to do with trying to stay as close as possible to the framework of Christian mythology, or Milton's Paradise Lost, upon which much of Pullman's story is based. But, if you're going to break from that mythology enough to have God as merely the first sentient being, and not the actual creator, it would seem to me that you're pretty free to change the mythology as much as you want. And especially for the purposes of this discussion, if you're going to have humans evolve, why would you show them as being fundamentally different from other animals, when in reality it's just differences of degree. For a story coming from this perspective, I would have liked to have seen humans portrayed as just another animal in the grand scheme of life. As long as I'm in this spoiler paragraph, I'll also point out that I had a problem with Lyra's entire motivation. She had the alethiometer, knew how to read it, and could understand when it wanted her to do something. But, when much of the theme of the book seemed to be to question authority and orthodoxy, why did she naively trust the alethiometer? How was she to know that she wasn't being manipulated by some nefarious entity?

Still, as I said, I liked the books overall, and there were many aspects worth commending. As I've already mentioned, despite the forced feel, I appreciate that Pullman gave it a bittersweet ending, when it seems that too many stories I read are sugar coated. And I very much enjoyed the alternate history that he developed for Lyra's world, and the setting it created. Aside from that, my favorite part was the character development. There wasn't a stark divide between good and evil. Characters did good things and bad things. Some did more good things than others, and some did more bad things than others. Obviously, we were supposed to sympathize with Lyra and her cause, but you could still follow the motivations of those on the other side. And even after the story was over, you're still not exactly sure who to like and who to dislike.

So, in the end, I would recommend these books, and not just because I'll earn money if you buy them through the links I provided. In fact, if you do follow those links, you'll see that all three books are rated at least 4 stars on Amazon (for now, at least - we'll see what happens as they get more publicity due to the movies, and if certain people start giving them poor ratings due to philosophical differences). They tell a pretty good story, and do get you thinking about some interesting topics. Just don't expect too much out of them, and you won't be disappointed.

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