My rating: 5 of 5 stars
And yes, I’m trying out a new title for the review portion of this here blog – just for the fun of it and all that.
BUT! Before I begin to dive into the review and lose anyone not already familiar (even in passing) with what this book is basically about, here’s a quick blurb:
Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.
Now, with that out of the way, you have a basic idea (about as much as I did when I first came across it) and I can get to the my more-than-a-month-overdue rambling review of this book!
To begin with, what I love most about this story is that it is a rarity for me in some ways, compared to most modern fiction and science fiction in particular. You see I find myself increasingly annoyed by writers that feel compelled to fill up space and explain all their choices and concepts – what I loved most about science fiction and fantasy growing up was the lack of tropes and cliches that are so common today, the love of the surreal and the bizarre and the flight of fancy. The whole point of such stories to me is to not have to understand the science and the audience isn’t (or shouldn’t be) that stupid (I’m sorry to imply but its true in part) that if the reason why a thing is flying or why someone can do what they do or how something works is not explained, they cannot take a simple leap of imagination and believe that it just simple IS – it is a sense of wonder that as a new generation and a new century we have slowly begun to lose.
It is this very reason why I have developed such a love for this series and am going to be diving back into it with the second volume soon – Pullman creates a new world with its own rules and the barest minimally required explanation (enough to make you nod a little and go “alright then!” and keep reading) and with that out of the way, moves on to tell a compelling story filled with wonder and a remarkably surprising depth.
At first I was under the impression that this book was some kind of child’s fantasy story series and I knew no-one who had ever read it really and never bothered. Then I saw my sister read it and read the blurbs at the back and the concept touched something in my mind that left a kind of bookmark to check back in with this sometime. Of course, as with many things, that didn’t happen. The end result was that in a rare turn, I saw the movie BEFORE I read the book (something unusual for me) and despite a lot of the critique it took, I think it was fairly well handled all said and done, leaving me now truly intrigued with the ideas Pullman had brought to life and this amazing new world.
So it was that I came around to reading this first chapter in the interestingly titled “His Dark Materials Trilogy” which follows a fantastically told coming-of-age adventure of a pair of young children in a wonderfully jumbled up world of the fantastic that I think could safely give Harry Potters world a run for its money if people were more inclined to science and philosophy then magical fantasy. That sadly, I think is not likely anytime soon.
The story is set in another Earth, one of many apparently, sharing various details and settings – but each infinitely different and unique in its own right. The people of this Earth for starters have a feature that (as a concept) I think is the most interesting and amazingly infectious to the imagination that I could think of: the thing we refer to as a soul, the voice inside, the thing that in its way shows who we are, here it exists outside us as a companion of sorts called a dæmon (interesting choice for the name, which shows an opening glimpse into the religious commentary and such and such peppered in the book) which I can most closely liken to an “animal guide” or such spirit, which is unique to you and tells you something about yourself and has a mind of its own though connected with you. Here, in this world it is in a sense, your very soul taken corporeal form – shifting between animals when you are a child (like Lyra and Roger) but once you reach adulthood it assumes a final, permanent form.
Filled with great concepts that mix and merge the familiar, breathing new life into the staid – yet despite the sheer volume of concepts, Pullman manages to create a cohesive world and one that carries in it elements of something new, something that sets his story apart from the run-of-the-mill. And he does something more – he takes a simple adventure story and weaves some serious humanity, philosophy, theology and such into the under-currents of everything that transpires. I read somewhere that this was inspired partially by Milton’s Paradise Lost, but does the reverse, i.e, praise mankind for all the things Milton called our failings; an approach that I found quite brave and interesting in a lot of ways.
Amid all the serious story however, we get to enjoy the wonder of this Victoria-era-like steam-punkish new world that has zeppelins and carriages and a
whole other feel to it all – people by the refined upper crust of the civilised world, the agents of the all-powerful Magisterium, the fierce way-faring Gyptians, the mysterious Witches of the North, the terrifyingly fierce Armoured Bears (called Panserbjørne) and so much more!
Through the eyes and ears of Lyra we get to see and immerse ourselves in this brave new world and the childlike wonder and horror (and all in between) I think serves to bring some of it out in the reader as well – if you are willing.
A wholly remarkable book that bodes extremely well for the coming editions and now I understand already why this series is at once greatly loved and highly controversial (depending on your point of view). I would recommend this to anyone and everyone with a love of the fantastic and for exploring the limits of the imagination and then some. A thuly thought provoking flight of fancy.