Book Review: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Following Pullman’s announcement about the release of The Book of Dust, a follow up trilogy to His Dark Materials, I thought it was about time that I shared my thoughts on the original series.

I don’t remember when I first read this series, I think I was twelve, the same age as the protagonist, Lyra (one of my favourite female heroines by the way). I was vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding it, my uncle was a Catholic priest and wanted to know my thoughts on the books. But let me tell you what a great adventure it is!

I’m not sure I could name any other books quite like this series, I fell in love with Lyra and Pan, her dæmon. Every person in Lyra’s world has a dæmon and I spent a long time both wanting one and wondering what mine would be! I’ll be honest though, it took me a couple of attempts to start this book as I found the first chapter quite boring at that age, but more of that later.

The entire series is a big adventure filled with mystery, intrigue and fantasy, making it an exciting and fascinating series for younger me. It managed to mix fantasy with realism in a way that at the time, I hadn’t encountered to that extent. It was almost jarring how grounded the story appeared to be in our reality before reminding you just how far it was from it. What I probably loved the most about it was the challenges it presented. By that I mean, how much it challenged my young mind to ponder questions I hadn’t thought to ask. It explores politics, religion and growing up all in the same breath with a narrative far superior to a lot of the novels I was reading at the time.

My favourite book of the series was actually The Subtle Knife and despite how disappointing the film had been, I was sad we never got that far. I currently have extremely high hopes for the BBC adaptation and refuse to believe that it won’t live up to my high expectation (though it probably will…but I will continue with my hope!). The novels, especially the second one in the series, stretch the imagination to its outermost edge that we usually only glimpse in our dreams.

The novels have the very common tradition of judging right and wrong however, unlike most other children’s novels, it never really reveals the outcome. The philosophical storytelling is evened out by its adventure, excitement and surprisingly emotional elements. With a female protagonist and male companion, as well as its well rounded mix of peripheral characters, the book manages not to fall into the trap of gender bias. On top of this, its complex nature and technical storytelling mean that it balances precariously between a children’s and an adult’s book.

Its age range I find a little contentious. This novel is not just for children, in fact you could argue that at times it misses the mark for some children, going over their head in order to reach some higher level. I take small issue with trapping an adult story in a children’s book in order to widen its appeal however it (just about) manages to engage children enough to allow it to fit into a small category of successful crossover novels.

If you have never read the series I implore you to do so. If you judge it by the film then you have been mislead. There are so many things I could explore in this review however, as I’m not trying to write an essay, I will leave it here. These novels have everything you expect and love about a fantasy novel, even the talking animals. I’m not sure that the series gets the full respect it deserves, and should be held in as high regard as The Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings (Harry Potter will still remain at the top of the pile however!). 

I’m not sure how on board I am with the new trilogy but that remains to be seen. Hopefully I will be able to write just as highly about that as well.

Don’t forget you can now follow me on my Facebook page!

 

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