Sunday, 25 May 2008

Books: His Dark Materials


A couple of months ago, I posted on Northern Lights and the first part of The Subtle Knife, both by Philip Pullman. Recently I finally finished the third in the His Dark Materials series, The Amber Spyglass, also via audio book.

Broadly, the series follows the adventures of 12-year old Lyra (from a parallel world to our own) and Will (from our world) as they stumble across a canvass spanning multiple worlds and epic events. Lyra has been prophesied to be the next 'Eve' and the religious factions of her world see this as the opportunity to 'get it right' this time -- clearly she must be killed before she can be 'tempted'. Meanwhile, her father Lord Asriel is waging a war against 'The Authority' (God) who is depicted as an angel risen above his station, and her slippery manipulative mother is weaving sinuously through events like a snake. Throughout, Lyra is driven to save her friend, Roger; this takes her first to the Arctic, then into multiple different worlds, including the world of the dead. Will's mission is to find his father (who crossed between the worlds years previously). In the end, their actions help to preserve the mysterous, ailing 'Dust', which is created in all the worlds by intelligent life's (not limited to humans) wisdom and inspiration.

It's been interesting to 'read' the series again, because so many people find them wonderful, and I never did, so I've been wondering if my opinion would change. It hasn't. Once again, I found the first book intriguing, full of amazing ideas and a fairly memorable storyline. But even as the second and third books expand in their scope and ambition, I find them less satisfying.

I have been pondering the reasons for this, and the other day one major reason came to me. There's a fundamental lack of logic in these books. For example, Lyra's father Lord Asriel crosses the border between worlds for the first time -- and within the space of weeks, maybe months(?), he's built an entire fortress and raised forces complete with an entire spy network.

Also, crossing between the worlds is suddenly mere commonplace -- for there are windows everywhere that simply didn't exist in book number 1. And these windows seem to be really easy to find, judging from the amount of world-hopping that happens in books 2 and 3.

Another thing that I don't like much is the lack of balance, particularly in book 3. The author spends the first half of the book dealing with all the other players (i.e. less focus on the two main children, Lyra and Will) at great length, yet towards the latter half their presence falls away. Characters come and go, seemingly at random. It all feels rather chaotic and unsatisfying, as though Pullman is making it up as he goes along -- which I'm sure is not the case at all (I guess this stems back to the 'lack of logic' criticism).

The bottom line is that it seems to me that His Dark Materials sacrifices storytelling for the sake of allegory . . . why bother with the details, so long as the message is conveyed loud and clear? (And the kids won't notice . . .)

Someone said to me today that they were reading Northern Lights and really enjoying Pullman's writing style. They said that whereas JK Rowling/Harry Potter was 'fluffy', Pullman's words were more direct and no-nonsense. There's no doubt that the styles are very different and will doubtless appeal to different readers. And the subjects are very different as well. His Dark Materials is edgy and dark, whereas HP, despite multiple deaths, somehow never really descends into the depths of despair. But one thing HP doesn't suffer from is lack of logic. Every minute detail of that series was by design. I confess I would prefer to read HP any day.

His Dark Materials does have redeeming features, but for me they mainly stem back to an intellectual interest in proceedings -- although I'm not sure how much of this the so-called children as target audience would perceive.

I'm not sure what kids see in these books actually. Perhaps on a certain level the children are charismatic and they're certainly strong and take decisive action. I didn't feel strongly attached to either though. And as for these 12-year olds being 'in love' and having day-long making out sessions . . . did that make anyone else want to vomit? I know they are supposed to represent Adam and Eve, but for the authority's sake, they're only TWELVE!

I did enjoy these books, truly I did. But I really don't see what all the fuss is about.

1 comment:

  1. Having been rather scathing about the first book (and perhaps unnecessarily so), I am now even less inclined to read the second and third. It is a pity in a way as, like you, I thought there were a lot of interesting ideas.

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