This series is hardly new, but as you may notice I tend to review both new and old books. One reason for writing a review about what is well reviewed by consumers is that Pullman does some things that are not common and worth note from both the reader perspective and the writing perspective.
My first thought is that the industry labeling this as a juvenile age genre is very misleading. Juvenile indicates that the target age group is elementary school. My personal opinion is that for the most part some of the sophistication of the topic matter is lost on an elementary school reader. I could be wrong. My daughter is 10 and she would understand the concepts, but not the subtitles of social commentary on the inquisition and church behavior through out history. This should be a flag for any reader who is dogmatic about thinking that books that criticize the church (note I say the church, not religion) are evil. That group of books, by the way, includes Harry Potter.
The following appears on the Tor website (Tor is one of the major fantasy publishers in the world):
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series was number 8 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list for 2000-2009. In 2007, the Catholic League campaigned against The Golden Compass, declaring that it promoted atheism and attacked Christianity, in particular the Catholic church. In a later interview with the Guardian Pullman partially confirmed this, saying “In one way, I hope the wretched organisation will vanish entirely.”
But he’s also made it clear that it’s not God or religion he objects to, rather the way that the structures and ideas are used for ill:
“[I]n my view, belief in God seems to be a very good excuse, on the part of those who claim to believe, for doing many wicked things that they wouldn’t feel justified in doing without such a belief.”
The writing, if for juveniles, does not insult their intelligence, nor does it shy away from real words. The sentence structure is simple, direct, and the prose is not overly deep on sensory detail. The other modest nods to a younger audience include a bit more “telling” than showing.
But, Pullman still uses some great writing techniques, such as not explaining new words, or ideas when the protagonist would be familiar with them. Rather you figure it out. In a strange way, kids are more accepting of this than adults, yet it should be the standard for any fantasy writing.
The tropes Pullman uses are well worn, yet he combines them in some interesting ways. The oft used tropes are: multiple/parallel universes. Gateways between those universes. Child prophesy. These are well worn, but still useful and because he gives use some new ideas, we accept them. These ideas are also so common now that my 10 year old would have no problem with them.
His idea of a daemon is a great one. I am sure somewhere down the line I will steal something from this. I have used the concept of daemon (versus demon) before. Those with a computer science background will recognize the concept. A daemon in computer science is a small little program that goes out and does things for you. In Pullman’s world (or his main one) a daemon is a bit like the embodiment of your soul. But, it is independent and sentient. You (generally) cannot survive without it.
Lyra is the protagonist and again a well worn trope is used. She is for all intents and purposes an orphan. Her parents are alive, but you find that out later and they are not parents that any child would want. Pullman doesn’t shy away from their coldness, nor even their evil. But, they are three dimensional, which is great for an ostensibly juvenile book. Evil is not pure, it is a bit grey (but not too grey–there is nothing to like about Lyra’s mother). I won’t give away the plot too much, but rather want to discuss the writing and what makes this both a great book (or set) and fundamentally flawed.
The flaw is the speed and simplicity at which Lyra flows through some hugely traumatic events. This makes her feel strangely impersonal. My opinion is that this is due to the dichotomy between complex subjects, well rounded characters in the sense of not all good, not all evil, and still focusing on “juvenile.”
Another major flaw is the simplicity of gaining some major, major “magical” weapons/items. These just randomly seem to be there. Especially with Lyra’s father and with Will, the other protagonist.
There are other minor flaws, but the biggest is the contradiction of basically a fate, or prophesy, and the very big focus on no god, or guiding force. I am an atheist myself, but within the book there seems to be a contradiction on this. Really this is the sum of the minor flaws also. Not all questions raised need to be answered, but there is a contract with the reader to answer some of them and too much is out of the blue. Supernatural. I love supernatural and fantasy (it is what I write under my nom de plume), but there needs to in consistent internal logic. Pullman does not have consistent internal logic or rules.
All the flaws aside, the daemons, the bear people, the land of the dead (shades of Dante’s Inferno), and the alternate England/world that Lyra comes from all make up for the flaws. I give these a 4 star rating and think that adults should read this as well as “juveniles.”