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Books : reviews

Philip Pullman.
Northern Lights (== The Golden Compass) .
Scholastic. 1995

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 28 March 2004

Lyra is a young girl living in a world in some respects similar to our own, and in some respects very different. This is an alternate universe where the geography of the world is recognisable, but the history, the physics, and the metaphysics, have crucial differences. The main one is that every person is accompanied by a dæmon, an inseparable animal familiar that shares their soul and life. Lyra has spent a relatively free life as an orphan at Jordan College in Oxford. But events take a sinister turn when she discovers a plot against her Uncle Asriel, and that it may be linked to the disappearing children. When her dear friend, the kitchen boy Roger, disappears, she determines to find him. This leads her on the adventure of her life, to London, then to the far north of Scandanavia, home of the Aurorae and the fierce intelligent bears, and of mortal peril for Lyra.

This is a rich, inventive, scary, thrilling tale. The world-building is excellent, original and fascinating. Lyra isn't a terribly pleasant protagonist, but she feels solidly real, and shows much courage and fortitude as events spiral out of control. (This is the first book of a trilogy, and has only a small amount of closure at the end.)

This series has received a lot of hype. Maybe I've absorbed so much sensawunda over the years that I've lost some of my capacity for wonder, but I don't think this is as great as people make out. Or maybe I've just been exposed to a greater range of SF, so am more aware of other peaks of excellence. Don't misunderstand me: this is very good indeed, and there is certainly nothing "juvenile" about the complexity of the tale and its background. But it's comparable to, and not not head-and-shoulders above, the best of the rest as some of the hype might lead you too expect. However, it's certainly good enough that I'm now off to read the next book right away.

Philip Pullman.
The Subtle Knife.
Scholastic. 1997

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 3 April 2004

In this second book in the Dark Materials trilogy, we are introduced to Will, a young boy from our own world who, while searching for his long-lost father, stumbles on a window into another world. There he meets Lyra, a strange wild girl with a strange wild animal companion. Together, they set out in search of Will's father, but bigger events are afoot, and both Will and Lyra have a key role to play.

This is just as rich, inventive, and thrilling as the first book. The different dangers the pair have to face in the different worlds they travel through keep the story hurtling along, and yet there's a feeling of such deep undercurrents that it's not merely a chase/quest plot. There's not much "middle book" problem, either: the indroduction of the second major character in the trilogy makes this progress the plot significantly.

Philip Pullman.
The Amber Spyglass.
Scholastic. 2000

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 5 April 2004

This concludes the Dark Materials Trilogy. Will and Lyra, key players in whatever cataclysmic events are unfolding, stubbornly refuse to play the parts the various sides have mapped out for them. They have their own plans, and are going to follow them, no matter what.

This is an excellent conclusion. The plot twists off in unexpected directions, and there are some great new races introduced: the completely alien mulefa give a science fictional feeling and the tiny fierce Gillevspians add a kind of fairy tale effect. These disparate elements all work well together, along with the dollop of Many Worlds philosophy. And it all obeys Hite's rule.

My only complaint, I suppose, is the fulfillment of Lyra's prophesy. She does do great things, but none of these are the fulfillment of the prophecy: the actual fulfillment seems a bit easy, I feel. But maybe that's the point. Anyway, there's a lot of strength in this series: great world-building, tragic events with no stereotypical fantasy cop-out, and hard decisions made and stuck with. And some really nasty theology. Excellent stuff.