Friday, October 8, 2010

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, 1995-2000

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and your daemons shall assume their true forms, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to reveal the true form of one's daemon, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they saw the true form of their daemons, and spoke with them.
--(The Golden Compass, page 273).

Let's get one thing straight: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is as much children's fiction as The Lord of the Rings is. The saga's incredible passages of violence, sexuality, cruelty, horror and spiritual complexity makes these books as dark and deep as any adult fantasy series.

The trilogy is hard to encapsulate. It is the story of hundreds of overlapping worlds, the story of a man bent on destroying God, the story of two children caught in the midst of a metaphysical war. It has as much action and adventure as could be hoped for, and memorable characters, and complicated themes. It's a masterpiece of fantasy fiction, no question.

Pullman and his three novels have garnered incredible controversy, and rightly so. The trilogy is everything that its detractors claim it to be. Do I agree with all of Pullman's spiritual/philosophical/moral points? No, I do not, but he makes them compellingly and (for the most part) without too much ham-handedness.

And the trilogy is not a dry religious treatise. It's an epic, emotionally engaging bildungsroman that holds together astonishingly well over its 900+ page length. It's a true feast for book lovers.

The first volume, The Golden Compass is a rip-roaring adventure in a steampunk-y parallel universe. It has armored bears, exploding zeppelins, mysterious prophecies and a plucky young heroine. It's an engaging, smartly written fantasy novel that merely hints at what's to come.

Book two, The Subtle Knife is a deeper, more complex novel that even manages to top the first novel in terms of action. The world-cutting knife is a glorious invention and the plot thickens and twists like a thriller.

The conclusion, The Amber Spyglass, is the longest, darkest volume in the cycle, with the widest scope. Although I had a few problems with Spyglass's first half (a lot of subplots, too many new characters), the ending is truly magnificent, as powerful and emotional a finish as any I've ever read.

My only major complaint with the cycle is that Pullman's hatred of organized religion comes through too strongly, and isn't as well-developed as other aspects of the book. Every single person belonging to the Christian religion is, without exception, portrayed as a cruel, dangerous zealot. For an author who can make characters as morally conflicted as Pullman can, this seems like a truly lazy way to establish the trilogy's villains. The sections of the novels dealing with The Authority--read: God-- is also too highly colored with Pullman's own prejudices.

But in a cycle as huge as His Dark Materials (I read all three books as one massive novel, which definitely enhances this impression), this isn't a deal-breaking misstep. There's so much to enjoy in Pullman's world.

The main characters, Lyra and Will, are fantastic. Frankly, in the first volume, I found Lyra a little annoying, but in retrospect, her character development was pretty outstanding. Will is also an incredible creation; he couldn't be farther from the stereotype of the "heroic little boy." He's an incredibly dark character.

Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, the other two central figures (and Lyra's parents) are just as fascinating. Imagine Severus Snape and a female Ben Linus interacting, and you get an idea of how layered and complex their motives and desires are. Their eventual sacrifice is perfect, especially because no other characters actually know what they did.

Pullman's powers of invention rank next to J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. His multiverse is an incredibly colorful place, full of strange creatures and bizarre landscapes. The armored polar bears are his most stunningly original creations.

The end of the story is amazingly good, considering the buildup. The mysteries are resolved, the characters dealt with and the series concludes with an incredibly moving moment of grace and sacrifice that's among the most heartbreaking passages of fiction I've read.

It's an incredible trilogy and indisputably a modern classic. It's a work that I know I will return to, to again be swept away by the scope and scale and dizzying emotional power. Reading His Dark Materials is like reading The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings. It's a work of fantastic fiction that changes the parameters of the genre itself.

Also, there's battling armored polar bears, and they're awesome.

NEXT UP: Julia Spencer-Fleming's fifth Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson mystery, All Mortal Flesh.

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