Resurrected book review: His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman

From the summer of 2013.


The Golden Compass, which I hadn’t read since — high school?  I think.

But wow, so much appreciation this time around, and I can’t wait for the sequels to arrive so I can re-examine the series as a whole.  Even standing alone, though, The Golden Compass is a phenomenal book, as it excels in so many areas:

  • World-building.  Holy shit, how I wanted a daemon of my own the first time I read it.  And still do.  How it explained all the rules around them, what they are, so efficiently and unobtrusively, so by the time you see a child without one, you really do feel the horror of it.  As well as the horror of the incision process.  Man, I was all choked up.  Also, the expansion of Oxford, Jordan College, and the scholars was pretty nifty too.  The misogyny in academia, though, was less so.
  • A fantastic critique of the church establishment and views of original sin.  Yeah, again, I can’t wait for the next books to see what conclusions Lyra eventually comes to about Dust.
  • And Lyra herself.  What more can you ask more — a young girl as protagonist, a realistic child who has a temper and makes mistakes and is sometimes naive and always stubborn. Who learns to believe in herself, and knows her strengths.  Who is confident of the basics of right and wrong.
  • A really, really chilling study of the evil done to children, which is something that rings deep with me after my writing.
  • A Texan aeronaut. This is the only time I’m proud of my state, when characters like Lee Scoresby or Quincey Morris (in Dracula) show up. You just know how one day Phillip Pullman had the thought, “I will write a novel and it will have a Texan aeronaut yes good” and the rest spun out around him. That’s how I imagine it anyway.
  • Or maybe his first thought was “I will write a novel and it will have armored bears.”  That’s also a possibility.
  • The witches were freaking awesome.  And the alethiometer was even more complicated and cooler than I remembered.


It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history…it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. …I have traveled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvanger did — not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.

-Philip Pullman, not being very subtle in The Subtle Knife as he scrawls “I HATE RELIGION” in wild brushstrokes through his books


I finished The Subtle Knife today.

Lee Scoresby’s and Hester’s death scene still made me cry.

But yeah, knowing anything about Texas history, when you see a chapter titled “Alamo Gulch,” you know it won’t end well.

At first you rage at Lee for not remember Serafina Pekkala’s flower earlier, but then it turns out to be okay because it got her away before all the other witches are attacked by specters.

And it’s hard to rate the book, otherwise; it’s so obviously the first half of two books.  But I like the contrast between worlds, how difficult it was for Lyra to accept ours, and I like Will’s character very much — he’s a good contrast to Lyra.  Mary Malone is awesome.


Then the President [of the Consistorial Court of Discipline] turned to look over his shoulder, and she saw his expression. It was as fixed and intense that he looked more like a mask than a man. His lips were moving in prayer, his eyes were turned up wide open as the rain beat into them, and altogether he looked like some gloomy Spanish painting of a saint in the ecstasy of martyrdom.

-Phillip Pullman, who may hate religious zeal almost as much as I do


So I finished The Amber Spyglass this morning.

Definitely not as good as The Golden Compass. Yes, Phillip Pullman can build a hell of a climactic action scene (both the battle outside the cave where Mrs. Coulter kept watch over drugged!Lyra, and the final battle between the forces of heaven and Lord Asriel’s forces), but my favorite of his talents is world-building — the daemons, the armored bears, the mulefa, the concept of the Death that accompanies everyone.

The story, though, not so much. Especially the last arc, i.e., Lyra and Will’s love story.  I get it’s symbolic and all, but still, it was an awful sudden push into adolescence and ~THE TRUEST LOVE THE WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN.~  It was really hard for me to picture Lyra feeling and acting that way, especially because I had her cemented in my mind as such a child.  And come on…they are just twelve.

Am contemplating whether it’s supposed to be implied they actually had sex, but I’m thinking not, since the series has alluded to sex before, if only to make a point at the time that Lyra and Will are ignorant of it, and with everything they went through, none of it included sex education.  Clearly their love is held to be a more innocent thing, which is odd considering all the other points made about the importance and goodness of Dust (original sin acquired through puberty, yeah?) and human nature and sensory pleasures.

And oh man, did their ~necessary sacrifice~ ever feel contrived, too.  He pushed too far, there, with bending all the rules, making everything so possible, even letting Will and Lyra’s daemons stray far from them like the witches’ do, but nooooo, there’s absolutely no loophole for them to stay together.

I remembered my favorite quote from this book, though, as they’re about to say goodbye — when Will thinks, Being cheerful starts now.  It strikes me as humorous, but also rang very deep with me, close to a philosophy I’ve held dear for many years.

The story about how they end up in the Land of the Dead, and freeing all the souls within it, was much better done.  I am almost as enthralled with the idea of how everyone is accompanied by their own Death, all their days until the last when he/she finally greets you and leads you out by your hand, as I am with daemons.

The story of the angels Balthamos and Baruch was far more moving to me this time than the first time I read the series.  I don’t think angels are sexual (yet again maybe they are, considering how Metatron was lusting for Mrs. Coulter), yet I got the feeling they had been, maybe before Baruch died, and as angels what was left was the same powerful, half-romantic half-platonic love that Will and Lyra are described as having.  But it gave me chills, the depth of Balthamos’ grief for Baruch.

“If we keep moving toward Lyra,” Will said, “will you find us?”

“I shall never lose Balthamos,” said Baruch, and stepped back.

Then he leapt into the air, soared swiftly into the sky, and vanished among the scattered stars. Balthamos was looking after him with desperate longing.

Speaking of love stories — I’m still undecided about Lord Asriel’s and Mrs. Coulter’s ending.  A hell of a way to go out, for sure, but I don’t know if Mrs. Coulter was convincingly redeemed, before that (though her showdown with Metatron was awesome).  When she made her speech about Lyra, post-capture, Asriel was convinced she was lying utterly — I don’t know if he was wrong, or if she were lying about part of it. I guess it’s true that she really was keeping Lyra until she passed the age of temptation (if that would even work), and she’s just…really bad at being a mother. At any rate, nothing was shown to make it believable for Asriel to trust her as she came to him the final time, at the edge of the abyss. I don’t think his sacrifice, especially, for Lyra’s sake was believable with what was presented of his character so far.

It did amuse me that the Master of Jordan College lied about Asriel’s endowment for Lyra, heh.

If I were Mary Malone, you would have had to drag me screaming and kicking from the mulafa’s world back to this one, no matter what you told me about eventually growing sick and dying.

I do find it very interesting, though, Mary Malone’s portrayal as the serpent — the book leaves us to decide how exactly she filled that function, how and if Lyra fell the way Eve did…hm.  I think the most logical conclusion is that if she had decided to stay with Will, even if it would damn the Dust — that would be falling, and the destruction of all that the Church predicted, though I don’t think they would agree, seeing how they hated Dust.

Let me tell you how much I don’t care about the Republic of Heaven, though.

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