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Dusting: Book review of ‘His Dark Materials’ by Philip Pullman

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His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman has a huge following despite that his collective works are plagued with controversy due to allegations that Pullman is attempting to steer readers (i.e. children) away from religion toward atheism. I loved the books but I do see, much to my chagrin, why conservative types might have a point. However I came to the conclusion that underneath it all the real issue isn’t atheism, but how you define the concept of God.

The trilogy of novels that make up His Dark Materials are Northern Lights (known in the states as The Golden Compass) The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The first book was made into a 2007 movie but did not do enough business to justify the filming of the other two novels. Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (of which the English speaking version of the Stieg Larsson Millennium series ended after the first film) Compass starred Daniel Craig – my point being that novel trilogies that Hollywood attempts to make cinematic versions of should not star Daniel Craig. Just saying.

Pullman likens His Dark Materials to a retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost with a mix of comparative philosophy and physics thrown in.

The Golden Compass centers around twelve year old Lyra Belacqua who is the niece (daughter really) of Lord Asriel, an adventurer and scholar, who has left her to be raised amongst the faculty of Oxford University. Here she runs wild with various local playmates while being educated hap hazard by either students or professors who have a spare hour. Within the first chapter she saves her uncle’s life from an assassination plot. He leaves with haste to chase after a cosmic event happening in the northern regions of the world called “dust” (dust being the reason some want him dead). In his absence Lyra becomes the ward of Marisa Coulter who we then learn is actually her mother – Lyra was born form an illicit affair the lovely charming Mrs. Coulter had with dashing Lord Asriel.

Other plot elements include kidnapped children, daemons (the souls of people who travel with them in talking animal form) and an alethiometer which is shaped like a compass but has various pictures of which Lyra uses to interpret events that will happen in the future. As a reader I was happy that I saw the movie first because I had an understanding that the world Lyra lives in is quite different than the one we do. I admit that the concept of daemons threw me for a loop yet I was able to grasp the whole armored polar bear concept.

The Subtle Knife changes locations to our world and we are introduced to twelve year old Will Parry who is burdened with a mentally unstable mother that fears some organization is keeping surveillance on her (they are) and an absent father who has been missing since Will was a baby. Now the men whom his mother was so afraid are now tracking him. As luck would have it he finds a dimensional opening in this world that allows him to slip into another which is wear he meets Lyra. They join forces and eventually travel to and from various worlds.

The Amber Spyglass was my favorite novel because It was the least predictable. The story was also the most gut wrenching for several reasons. The ending actually made me teary eyed. At this point the trilogy had gone beyond normal young adult fair.

What I loved about the books was the use of quantum physics along with the concept of different dimensions in which worlds similar to our own are within reach. They work for readers who enjoy fantasy, philosophy, and who have comparative thinking skills. I’ll amend a little of what I said above; although the novels can be interpreted as critical of organized religion (the Vatican condemned the series in 2007) actually they were critical of accepting a belief system that has a long standing institution that dismisses or even sabotages evidence from general public view…I am speaking of in the novel of course.

I highly recommend His Dark Materials. They were fast, fun and thoughtful reads!

Happy reading!