His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

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The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman, Knopf, 1995, ISBN 0-679-87924-2, $20.00, 399pp..

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The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman, Knopf, 1997, ISBN 0-679-87925-0, $20.00, 326pp.

Don’t read these books–yet. You see, they are not finished. Pullman is writing a trilogy, and these are just the first two books. However, do go out and buy these books, because if you don’t you’ll be upset when the third volume wins the Newbery or Caldecott and you missed out.

The trilogy is titled “His Dark Materials,” and refers to the new physics of dark matter, that stuff between the stars. In the first book we meet Lyra Belacque, an orphan who is being raised by the faculty brothers of Jordan College. Her family origin is questionable, for she does have an uncle, Lord Asriel, who may or may not be related to her by blood. And from the first paragraph we know that Lyra’s world is not our own, because she has an animal “familiar”–a shape changing creature named Pantalaimon that she can converse with without using her voice.

A plot summary would only give the prime enjoyment of this type of book away, so instead I’ll compare it to what it is most like for you to judge if you would find it interesting. It has a lot of the same feel that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books do–high praise indeed–except it seems to have been written for older children, if not meant for teens. There is some movement that occurs between multiple worlds like in The Magician’s Nephew and the familiars are animals that talk, but the feeling one gets from Pullman’s books is much more dark than Narnia ever was. It may be that Lewis and Pullman were writing for different audiences (Lewis’ being a little younger). The Narnia books can be read separately; “His Dark Materials” resembles Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in that each book is only a part of the whole, and does not stand alone.

Like Narnia, Pullman’s trilogy is concerned with theology as well as fantasy. Within the second book, a main character is starting to gather together a new army to refight the battle of Heaven (the first one having been lost by Lucifer). Lewis’ books concerned the Creation; it looks like Pullman may be striving to describe Revelation. Whatever he’s writing towards, it is the best young adult fiction that has come around my place since C.S. Lewis, and I anxiously await the next book.

[Finished 21 August 1997]

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