Sunday, March 30, 2008

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials
Philip Pullman

It's been a while since my last review was posted. I've been sick and busy and reading a trilogy that I'm going to review all at once, rather than one at a time.

The His Dark Materials trilogy is targeted at young adult readers with a taste for fantasy. It's set in a multiverse that includes our world and many others, some of which are similar to our own. The first volume, The Golden Compass, takes place in one of those worlds that's similar to ours, and introduces Lyra, a child growing up in her version of Oxford.

Through a series of events we learn that Lyra figures at the heart of a prophecy, and that there is something she must do to save everything. Not just in her own world, but in them all. We are introduced to her parents, and to the complexities of the world around her, as she learns of her task and gets started. During her quest she meets a cast of fantasy characters including armored polar bears, witches, villains, and so on. Oh, and Pullman introduces something he calls daemons; speaking, animal shaped companions that every human has (at least in Lyra's world) and they're a close and constant part of your life.

Volume two, The Subtle Knife, begins in our world and introduces two more main characters: Will Parry and Dr. Mary Malone. Will's another child of about Lyra's age with the entire multiverse counting on him to do the right thing. Mary's a dark matter researcher drawn into the story by Lyra's appearance in our world. Here we follow the heroes as they continue their quest to save the multiverse from something awful but not all that clearly explained. It turns out that Will needs to acquire a particular knife in order to perform his part in saving everything from total destruction.

The Amber Spyglass, the last volume in the trilogy, follows the various characters through to the conclusion. I'm sad to say I found the conclusion - the actual resolution to the problems facing the multiverse - entirely unsatisfactory. It was too simple and yet too unexplained.

And now we're getting to the heart of the review, and (to some degree) the heart of my problem with these books. They aren't terrible, but I found them disjoint and obtuse. Some of it is the writing, which varies in style so that some sections were fine while others were condescending. Beyond that, I found the motivations for the characters didn't hold up, and in some cases major changes in behavior were totally unexplained. Lyra's parents, for example, seemed to be entirely arbitrary in their behavior, with no rhyme or reason for much of it ever being presented.

But that's no surprise because many of the major plot points were inexplicable too. Things just change. Minor characters just happen to reappear at critical points with no explanation. Many things seem to be going on between some of the minor characters, particularly Lyra's parents, that we don't learn about except by virtue of their unexplained actions. And there are too many connections between these characters for things to be plausible. For example, Will's father being who and where he is just didn't seem right to me.

Lastly, I'd have to say that Pullman is trying to do something very, very large. The story is trying to explain all of human development and much of why and how the universe acts as it does in a kid's book. Think of it as a fictional version of a unified field theory. In my opinion, however, he's not quite successful.

Some aspects of the story are fine, but his cosmology is a bit muddled. In fact, I found quite a few things muddled, and things that I thought should have been very important weren't treated as such. And the opposite is also true. The major act by Lyra, the one that saves everything from total destruction, is unconnected in any significant way to the multiverse. Or at least, that's how it appears to me.

From what I can tell, Pullman has a reputation as an anti-clerical writer, and the fact that these books are as popular as they are is interesting in that light. They're definitely anti-church in their take on the world, which probably helps explain why they aren't as popular in the US as they are in Europe. Given my own views on religion, I had high expectations. I wish they'd been met.