My first big reading project of 2015 was to read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. I remember reading the first book, The Golden Compass, and at least half of The Subtle Knife was I was younger. I remember being entranced by the books and by the character of Lyra. But apart from that, and the polar bear that was on the cover of the edition my library had in stock, I didn’t remember much about the actual plot of the story. I had a sort of vague recollection of what they might be about coupled with sparse information about their message regarding religion. So, I didn’t go into these books completely blind, but very nearly. Having now finished all three books in the trilogy, I thought I would combine them into one big post. So here are my thoughts on Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.
The Golden Compass: (3/5 stars) This first book is the story of Lyra and her strange world, which is filled with daemons, magic, witches, armored bears, Dust, and an all-powerful Church. The origins and the purpose of Dust is unknown, but lots of people seem to be very interested in it. After Lyra is taken away from her beloved Oxford by a woman named Mrs. Coulter, she escapes and travels to the North. There she learns the lengths to which people will go to control Dust. And she brings with her the alethiometer, which is the titular golden compass. Through this device, Lyra can discover the answer to any question. No one is sure why or how, but Lyra seems to instinctively know how to read the device. By the end of the first book, Lyra has seen horrible things and is determined to learn how to stop them from happening. When I first read this book, I think I was way too young for it. Funnily enough, I’m kind of too old for it now. Despite that, I did enjoy reading this book.
The Subtle Knife: (5/5 stars) In this second volume, a new character is introduced to the story — Will. He’s a young boy living in a world that’s exactly like the readers’ world. Lyra meets up with Will and they spend this book traveling between worlds, discovering dark new elements of the story that began in The Golden Compass, and fighting for their lives. Oh, and Will discovers the Subtle Knife, of course. I liked seeing the multiple worlds come together. Maybe I’m just completely slow on the uptake, but I didn’t expect this book to begin in another world and then introduce a completely different one from the one we were in with Lyra. It was interesting to see Lyra through someone else’s eyes and to realize how strange she would seem to someone from our world. This book made me realize just how wide and impressive the world that Pullman created is. Especially the fact that Dust is present in all of these worlds and has its own explanation in each one. In general, I found this way more interesting than The Golden Compass. Also, the ending of this book was amazing. Totally gripping.
The Amber Spyglass: (4/5 stars) So. Much. Happened. This book was longer than the first two in the series, and as a result so much happened. It felt like a very dense and full book, but that wasn’t a bad thing. By this point, it seemed like everything that needed to be introduced had been introduced, so the story just took off immediately and didn’t stop until the end. In this book, Pullman doesn’t hold anything back in his symbolism and connections to the “real world.” By the end of it, I was sort of surprised at how frank and candid he had been about certain topics. Characters die, Lyra and Will visit the world of the dead, and really big things happen that I don’t want to give away if you haven’t read it. The ending was heartbreaking and optimistic at the same time, and I flew through the final 100 pages of this book. Really excellent.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book series. It’s funny to look back and see that my review for The Golden Compass says I felt too young to be reading the series. That was the case with the first book, but I think it changed as the series went on, which is appropriate. The books are mainly about the process of growing up, so it make sense that they would become more and more advanced or mature. By the time I was reading The Amber Spyglass, I found myself thinking that it was too heavy for a kids’ book.
As I said, I remembered very little from my first reading of this series, and I don’t think I even got to the final book during that read. I may have heard about the anti-religion themes and been scared away. I’m glad that I came back to the books now, when I would be more open-minded to those sorts of messages. I feel like this was the right time for me to read the series. I picked up on a lot of the subtext this time around that I know I wouldn’t have gotten when I was younger. This was a great way to start my reading year!