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His Dark Materials (Part 1 of 2) September 29, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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(First of two parts.)

It was while waiting for one of the many movies of the summer to begin that I first caught a glimpse of the trailer to The Golden Compass. It had a spellbinding effect on me, to some extent because of the star power of Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig — and thereby the implication that it promised to be yet another big-budget movie experience — but really more because it looked like the sort of film that I would enjoy. It seemed to be another epic adventure in the offing, in a fantasy setting, no less, and with a new cast of characters to get to know along the way. As such, I had to know as much about the film as I could, and quickly learned that it was based on a trilogy of books written by Philip Pullman dubbed His Dark Materials.

The series is an opus paying homage to Milton’s Paradise Lost and one where the secrets of the universe’s creation come unraveled through what for all intents and purposes is a coming of age tale. His Dark Materials begins with The Golden Compass (nee Northern Lights), where readers are introduced to series protagonist Lyra Belacqua and a world both like and unlike our own. In this reality, the Catholic Church maintains monolithic power over society, technology is arcane yet with an air of sophistication, creatures of myth and magic are known to exist, and humans possess daemon familiars, animal manifestations of their souls and to whom they are inextricably linked.

The story unfolds in Oxford’s Jordan College, with young Lyra learning from her uncle, Lord Asriel, that there are mysterious particles permeating the world known as “Dust”. This Dust settles on adults more than children, and appears to be emanating from the Aurora in the northern lands. Soon after Lord Asriel leaves on an expedition to investigate the phenomenon, Lyra is to be taken under the wing of the influential and enchantingly beautiful Mrs. Coulter. Before she leaves Jordan College, however, her guardians entrust her with a mysterious truth-telling device called an alethiometer (the eponymous “golden compass”). As she adjusts to her new life in London’s high society and learns to read the alethiometer, Lyra makes a startling discovery: Mrs. Coulter is secretly the driving force behind a group known as Gobblers responsible for abducting hundreds of children across England. These Gobblers conduct experiments aimed at making future adults less susceptible to Dust by severing the kidnapped children from their daemons –- an undertaking that leaves those who survive mere shells of their former selves.

Horrified, Lyra flees from her mentor determined to put an end to these experiments. To this end, she enlists the aid of gypsy clans, witches and Panserbjørne (armored bears) to bring her to Lord Asriel, the one person powerful enough to stop the Gobblers. Chased by Mrs. Coulter, Lyra is eventually reunited with her uncle only to discover that he has a far more sinister agenda at work. Like the Gobblers, Lord Asriel plans to do something about Dust via a far more extreme solution: by destroying the Authority, the very source of Dust and the purported author of all creation, to whose realm and beyond a passageway has been discovered in the Aurora. As Lord Asriel disappears into the northern lights and across dimensions, Lyra makes the fateful decision to do all in her power to stop him, thus taking the plunge through the lights in pursuit.

The story continues in The Subtle Knife, where we meet two more protagonists, this time from our world. The first of these is Will Parry, a boy Lyra’s age on the run after accidentally killing a man. The second is Mary Malone, a physicist who has also discovered the existence of Dust and has written a computer program that functions very much like Lyra’s alethiometer. Lyra meets the two by circumstance, yet her chance meetings with them have vital consequences. In Will she finds an ally, and together they learn of a weapon powerful enough to create portals to other worlds and whose blade can cut through any material: the subtle knife. At great personal risk they obtain it, as it becomes apparent that the interdimensional army Lord Asriel has begun to amass for his rebellion also covets the weapon.

Meanwhile, Lyra’s encounter with Mary Malone opens the physicist’s eyes to the existence of passageways to different worlds. The scientist’s escape into one such passageway sets the stage for the trilogy’s final act in The Amber Spyglass, which derives its name from a device that allows Mary to see the flow of Dust across dimensions. It is here that Lord Asriel’s rebellion comes to a head as Lyra’s and Will’s adventure comes full circle, with readers ultimately learning the true nature of Dust.

Clearly, His Dark Materials is a series that lends itself easily to seasoned readers of fantasy. It is an amibitious tale with many of the genre’s familiar trappings often used in inventive and surprising ways. Indeed, the varied dramatis personae throughout the series — from humans, to warrior-bears, to witches and angels, among others — appear as good a reason as any to be drawn into narrative. As such, it is not surprising that the trilogy has received critical acclaim and possesses its own legion of fans.

For all that, however, I hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend the series to others, especially now that I’ve read it for myself.

(To be concluded.)

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1. His Dark Materials (Part 2 of 2) « BRAIN DRAIN - October 2, 2007

[…] His Dark Materials (Part 2 of 2) October 2, 2007 Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews. trackback (Second of Two Parts.) […]

2. Andy - October 9, 2007

I guess these books must have been out for a while for them to make a movie out of them..but I swear a few weeks ago was the first time I ever noticed them, and I always skim the sci-fi/fantasy section when I go book cruising.

Were they only published outside the states first, or suddenly get published together, out of print, or was I just blind?

3. Brian L. Belen - October 10, 2007

To the best of my knowledge, they were first published in the UK. It is also my understanding that the original title of the first book, Northern Lights, was changed to the Golden Compass when it was released in the US (and thereafter the title stuck).

My copies do have glowing review blurbs from the New York Times, but as I don’t have them on me I can’t check the date of publication for you.

I’d say you probably just missed them. I did, too: they wouldn’t have come up on my radar had I not seen the movie trailer.


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