Friday, June 17, 2011
Review: His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass)
When I sat down to write this review I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I've already chucked everything a couple of times and here's why: I can't help but feel ambivalent about these books. As far as the writing goes they are brilliant. I wish there were more books with this level of writing and that children were strongly encouraged to read them. The language is beautiful and combined with the extremely accessible style it creates an effect of easygoing elegance. The plot, the characters, the universe as a whole and every scene in particular are expertly crafted and the elaborate machine of multiple character arcs and multiple worlds never misses a beat. I admire Pullman's world building, attention to detail and creativity and would love to find out more about how he actually came up with all the pieces of the puzzle that's never really straightforward.
If you've been following the blog you know that I'm very fond of books that show people and the world we live in as realistically as possible even if the genre is fantasy. After all human nature is the same regardless of the time and place. Pullman definitely delivers as far as that goes. I kept catching myself thinking that every single character cannot be categorized definitively as good or evil. They all perform feats worthy of heroes and they all lie and kill to defend themselves, their friends and what they believe in. They all grow and change and discover something about themselves and each other. And it's like that in the real world too - things are hardly ever just black and white, pretty much everything is a shade of gray.
My reservations with these books stem from the theme, which is the struggle between science and religion where on one side there's knowledge, self-awareness, acceptance of maturation and understanding of the world around us and on the other side there's faith, church, innocence, reverence for mystery of creation. This conflict is nothing new, but here's the twist: here on the side of science are the good guys, young, honest and brave and on the side of religion are the bad guys, at best decrepit and senile and at worst underhanded, cruel and deceitful. As a Christian I found it difficult to read books like these, especially since as an adult I know what I believe, but young minds are still forming and while I don't think teens and pre-teens are so unperceptive that this radical, uncompromising view would elude them I do wonder whether they would regard it as perfectly acceptable or whether they would question it for its onesidedness. For this reason I would suggest that parents read the books before their children and decide whether they are appropriate for them.
I would definitely recommend these books to those who are looking for a beautifully-written, well-crafted story but I would speak about my apprehensions as well.