His Dark Materials
by Philip Pullman
Reviewed by ekt
I think I have always enjoyed the mixing of science, magic, and spirituality. Which is basically what these books do. Plus, of course, it's a multiple universe story, which is also usually fun. The first book in the trilogy is The Golden Compass, which is set in a world less technologically advanced than our own, ruled by the Church, aka the Magisterium (which is actually made up of various agencies, many of which are occasionally in conflict with one another). The souls of this world's people, called daemons, are separate entities, living outside the human body. They appear as animals; in youth, the person's daemon can shapeshift at will, but as the person ages, the daemon eventually assumes a permanent animal form. Humans and their daemons are close friends, but more than that... they can't stray far from each other, or live normal lives without each other. A human without his or her daemon is more or less a listless zombie.
The story starts in Jordan College, in Oxford, where we first meet the main character, Lyra, and her daemon, Pantalaimon (Pan, for short). She was an orphan, and lived at Jordan because her uncle, Lord Asriel, was a former Scholar there. At the start of the book, she is exploring a room she shouldn't be in, and when people come to the room, she has to hide. She ends up spying on a meeting between Lord Asriel, just returned from travels in the North, and some of the college's Scholars. What she overhears sets up the plot of the books, but at first it doesn't make any sense to Lyra or to us, the readers.
So, after this brief happenstance, Lyra goes back to her normal life, which generally consists of getting into mischief with the other children who live in the local system of colleges and about town. But recently, children have been disappearing, and everyone is wary of the mysterious, never-seen kidnappers, who they refer to as 'Gobblers.' When Lyra's friend Roger goes missing, she fears the Gobblers have gotten him, though she hardly has time to worry about it before she's introduced at the college to a glamorous woman named Mrs. Coulter, apparently a friend of her uncle Asriel. Lyra is captivated by her. Then the Master of Jordan College tells Lyra her time at Jordan is over, and she must go stay with Mrs. Coulter, which thrills her, despite the fact that she would miss her old way of life. The Master also gave her the golden compass, actually called an alethiometer, and told her to keep it a secret. All he had time to tell her about it was that it would tell her the truth, and that she'd have to learn to read it herself. Which, in the course of the book, she did. One could think a question, and its hands would move about to point at its various symbols in complex combinations. Most people would have to spend a long time studying books to decipher its meanings, but to Lyra understanding eventually came naturally.
But that's getting ahead of myself. Mrs. Coulter took Lyra to London, to be her assistant, and Lyra began to learn to live in a more social atmosphere. But then at a party she learned some disturbing things involving Mrs. Coulter and the Gobblers, so she and Pantalaimon ran away. Soon they took up with some gyptians - a people rather like gypsies. The gyptians had been hit the hardest by the Gobblers, and the Costa family, with whom Lyra was now traveling, wanted to go north to rescue one of their children. Lyra also wanted to rescue Roger, and find Lord Asriel.
Well... she'd have a great many adventures in the course of her travels, meeting and befriending Witches, an armored bear named Iorek Byrnison, and a Texan balloonist named Lee Scoresby, and so forth. I suppose I shouldn't say too much about it. Need to leave you some reason to actually read the books, but it's hard to know what to leave out, as the story gets so complicated it's nearly impossible for me to describe without giving too much away. I will say, however, that agencies of the Magisterium secretly do some monstrous experiments on children, 'intercising' them from their daemons, as part of their studies of a kind of particle called Dust, which is attracted to adults but not children. Many consider the idea of its very existence heretical, but different agencies and individuals wish to study it for different reasons. What it is is unclear, but it has much to do with the tangling of science and theology, and the parallel worlds. At the end of the first book, Lyra heads off alone into one of those other worlds....
The second book, The Subtle Knife, starts out in our own world. Here we meet a boy named Will Parry, whose father is an explorer who has been missing for some years now. Will has to look after his mother, who has emotional problems... he makes excuses for her, so she won't be taken away from him. Then some strange men show up, asking questions about Will's father. They search the house when Will's away, and he knows they're looking for something his father had sent his mother. Will gets his mother away from there, to stay with a neighbor for awhile; he takes a case of his father's letters, to hide it from them, and find some answers for himself. But he ends up accidentally discovering an almost undetectable patch of... well, a sort of hole, cut in the air. A hole between this world, and another.
In this other world he meets Lyra, who's been there for several days. It's more like Will's world than hers, but there doesn't seem to be anyone else around. He has a few useful skills, such as recognizing a refrigerator and knowing how to use a can opener. Lyra hadn't eaten in some time. She was also surprised to find he didn't have a daemon, but soon realized that his was within him, a part of him. She asked him to show her the window into his world. He agreed to show her in the morning.
After a night's sleep, they meet some other children. The kids called their city Cittàgazze, and said the grownups had left for fear of the Specters, which children can't see, but which attack adults, leaving them in a zombie-like state. The grownups would return once the Specters had moved on. Later, Lyra and Will went into Will's world. Will went off to take care of some of his own matters, trying to find out what happened to his father, while Lyra went looking for a scientist to ask about Dust. She met Dr. Mary Malone, whose project studying dark matter particles called Shadows was about to be shut down for lack of funding. Lyra amazed Dr. Malone with her abstract knowledge of the subject of her studies, and her ability to figure out how to communicate with the Shadow particles via a special computer which turned out to operate in a manner similar to the alethiometer. She asked Lyra to return the next day, and Lyra agreed.
But later the alethiometer was stolen by a man Lyra had met at the university's museum. She and Will went to get it back, and he told them he would only return it if they could get him a knife from a man in Cittàgazze. A knife of which the Specters were afraid. So they returned to the other world, and Will managed to get the knife, at dear personal cost. Then he learned to use it to cut openings between worlds, and to close them up again. He and Lyra used this new skill to steal the alethiometer back. And I fear it may sound like I'm giving away too much of the plot, but trust me, I've leaving far more out. Trust me, too, when I reiterate how hard it is to do so, because as I say the story's so complicated and engaging.
More happens. Dr. Malone used her computer to communicate with the Shadows, which gave her some surprisingly frank answers as well as some confusing instructions. Which she followed, and ended up in Cittàgazze. Lyra and Will would meet up with some of Lyra's old friends... witches, Iorek, Lee Scoresby.... Will meets his father.... And we creep ever closer to final answers about what the story's all about.
Which brings us to the third and final book of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass. A hell of a lot happens in this book, but I'm going to rather uncharacteristically try not to say much of anything about it. I will say that Dr. Malone wandered in the world of Cittàgazze for awhile before finding a window into another world. There she met a group of strange creatures called 'mulefa' with whom she lived for a time, and learned their language. They could see Dust, and eventually Dr. Malone devised a spyglass that allowed her to see it as well.
Meanwhile, Lord Asriel was gathering an army of angels and other beings from various worlds to restart the ancient war against Heaven, while Lyra, Will, and others joined against them, and um... Everything gets frightfully more complicated than it was before, even while we're finally learning what's actually going on. All the old characters are here, and plenty of new ones are introduced. Lots of good and bad things happened. The climax comes and goes. Then we're left with the anticlimax, which I feel I must warn you seems cosmically unfair, on a personal level. But it makes sense, in its own way, after everything else that's happened.
Sorry if I haven't really given much commentary. Some things are easier to review than others, while some things you can't do much more than report on. At least I can't. So I've told you a wee bit about what basically happens in the books, and I hope it whets your appetite rather than satiating. I've always been something of a sucker for revisionist theology (though I haven't read/seen nearly enough of the stuff). If you're not, this story probably isn't for you. If you are... I'd call it a fairly shining example of the form. A slightly bizarre and highly intriguing story populated by interesting characters and concepts. And that's all I can think to say, I guess.
Also available in a boxed set as the His Dark Materials Omnibus
An interview with Pullman at powells.com
Other web sources for Pullman info at robotwisdom.com
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