Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass)

When 12-year-old Lyra Belaqua leaves her home in Oxford to pursue the elusive and dangerous gobblers and rescue her friend from their dangerous experiments she doesn't know that her adventures will take her to another world, that she'll meet creatures she's never even suspected existed, that she'll make friends and enemies and that she has a destiny more remarkable than anything she has ever imagined.

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.


  1. What a wonderful and candid review. I appreciate your comments. I am a new GFC follower and would it if you have a moment to hop over to my blog. Please follow if you enjoy what you read there. I look forward to reading more of your reviews. Thanks. Donna

  2. Hi, great post, I have not read that one yet, I see in your Books of 2011 you have some of my favorite books there The Pillars of the Earth, I have read almost everything by Philippa Gregory, Memoirs of a Geisha I have read 3 times lol. I am now following your blog. Come visit me over at mine sometime. :)

  3. Hi Olga! I just found your blog and am enjoying your reviews. I too had mixed feelings about this story. I was fascinated and entertained, but there is a bit of a dark side to it. I think for me, as an adult, it is a great read. I have a strong sense of what I believe. For children or young adults, however, the story blurs too many lines and I wouldn't read it to my children or let them read it at this point. Great job!

  4. I read the first book, had mixed feelings about it because of the implied atheism and never finished. I really should, though. I love your blog and am following!

    I reviewed the new YA fantasy novel by Lena Coakley, Witchlanders. Please check it out!

  5. I have this sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read but I'm a little apprehensive about doing so after reading your review. The science and religious conflict doesn't sound like my cup of tea at all, and I especially don't like it that Christians are portrayed as 'evil'. I guess I'll have to just read it and see how far I get. :)

  6. Natalie and Kaye, thank you for following! It took me a while but I finally made it over to your pages and am now following you back!

    Sophie, I think the first one might be ok, the theme there isn't quite as pronounced, it's more about Lyra's adventures than anything else. Give it a try, see how it goes.