In Philip Pullman's epic His Dark Materials trilogy, the author presents us with alternate worlds, strange characters, corrupt theology, and theoretical physics, all woven together into a gripping whole.
For those readers who have completed the Harry Potter books, and are looking for something of the same kind (as I was when I began reading this trilogy), I'd advise you to drop any pre-conceived notions about how 'young adult' fiction is written - these books have bite. Main characters are subject to questionable morals, the plots are trully labrynthine, the whole Christian notion of the nature of the Universe is picked apart almost in disgust, and characters that you find yourself caring about do die.
To compare this trilogy to Harry Potter (which I enjoyed) is to compare wine to fruit juice.
As the author himself admits, the three books are really all one book, in much the same way as The Lord Of The Rings. I defy anyone to read the first story and not want to immediately start on the second, then the third.
The tale focuses on a girl called Lyra, raised as an orphan, but with a great destiny. Her adventures begin with a struggle against the all-powerful Christian church in her world, which is parallel to our own, but with many subtle differences.
This struggle leads to a greater one, and a greater one, until her final destiny is revealed - one that has implications for all the parallel worlds in the Universe.
Bringing together cosmology, physics, and christian theology, the trilogy presents a unified theory of the Universe, one in which even God himself may not be everything he seems (please be aware from the outset that Christians may find many of the aspects of this Universal theory uncomfortable, but also remember, it's only a story).
Even on a scale as grand as this, you can't help being drawn into the minutae of Lyra's world, her struggles, her emotions, and the realities of her burgeoning adolesence.
Be prepared for an emotional involvement in this trilogy. Whether you agree with it's somewhat grey-area moral stance, you won't fail to be impressed by it.
on 27 August 2003
There are two major results in modern Cosmology: First, we can only observe about 90% of the Universe. The rest is dark matter, still unaccounted for. Second, theories predict that, just as our Solar System is not the only in our Galaxy, and our Galaxy is not the only one in the Universe, there can also be other Universes, inaccessible to us. Philip Pullman uses these results as the basis for his Trilogy “His Dark Materials”. Starting in a parallel World, or Universe, in a parallel Oxford, Lyra Belaqua, an 11 year old girl gets into fantastic adventures. These are related to the existence of a certain Dust, which is dark matter, which no one can see, except under very special circumstances. The “Church” of her world keeps the existence of Dust secret, and those who talk about it are considered heretics. This is the basis for a struggle, which deals not so much with good vs. evil, as in usual children’s stories, but with wisdom and consciousness vs. ignorance and stupidity. The plot thickens throughout the three books, introducing a major character in the second book; Will Parry, slightly older than Lyra, who comes from our own world, and who will team up with Lyra in her future adventures, both of them looking for persons they have lost, and which they care about dearly. Along the story, several interesting characters are introduced; inhabitants from several different worlds. Some of them familiar in Western mythology, such as angels, witches and spectres, as well as new ones which come out of Pulman’s imagination. In his plot, he dares to explore daring ideas about organised religion, particularly Christianism and Catholisism, that he extends to question the very existence of God, and that religious people will find outright heretical. Specially the ending of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is to be replaced by the Republic of Heaven. However, organised religion should think twice before condemning the trilogy to bonfire, since that is precisely the kind of attitude which has lead Pullman to make his denunciation in the first place. A more rational approach to the story should be advised. Along each of the three books, we are introduced to three mysterious devices: a compass which can tell the truth, a knife so strong than can cut almost anything, including windows into different worlds, and a spyglass which humans can use to observe Dust. The story leaves compelling cliff hangers at the end of the first and second books, and becomes more interesting as it advances. I personally found the third book the best by all means. Its ending is absolutely heartbreaking, and it can take days to reflect on it and assimilate it. Although the reader is left with the feeling that a sequel is needed in order to fix things up, she (he) eventually realises that it is the best possible ending. Although profoundly sad and traumatic, it leaves an open window to optimism.
Overall, Pullman shows great artistry in the command of the English Language, which by itself makes the Trilogy captivating. At some points, we are left with the impression that more work should have been devoted by the author, in the development of some of the episodes. Although it is clear that it is a fantasy story, there is a minimum credibility to be expected from fantasy. Also, there are a few loose ends, which could have been easily mended by the author, with minor changes in some of the dialogues. Still, the story is extremely good, and the trilogy highly recommendable.
A final word of caution should be cast: Although His Dark Materials has been classified as a children’s book, it requires a minimum maturity to understand some of the issues it deals with, so “parental guidance” is strongly recommended. Furthermore, religious families may feel offended by some of the concepts, which as I mentioned earlier, are outright heretical on the face of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. However, open minded religious people will recognise that many of the main ideas fostered by Pullman are in line with religious values, except, of course, his doubt on the existence of God. In any case, it is just a story, not a manifesto. On the other hand, by the end, the reader is left with the idea that what Pullman actually did is to rediscover the existence of God in the omnipresent Dust, although he will probably not recognise it.
Philip Pullman's trilogy is a spectacular achievement, and you only have to look at the hundreds of reviews around the Internet to get a flavour of the positive feeling towards these stories. From my point of view, they are probably the best stories I have ever read, and fill your mind with the most amazing pictures, the most intense emotions and the most spectacular twists and turns you are ever likely to come across.
This edition is a three-in-one hard back, which could easily sit on your shelf alongside Lord of the Rings. It's a re-issue of the edition I own (which has a black cover, not the blue one shown in this picture), and I must admit that my romanticism leaves me really liking big, hard back books. This volume wouldn't be out of place on a story-teller's knee in front of a fire, and is a lovely way of giving someone these wonderful stories.
Also, it puts the books together as one story which, in all honesty, is what they are. One long, brilliant story.
Enough has been said about how wonderful these books are. In my opinion they are the most brilliant and life-affirming books I have ever read. The important thing about this product, though, is it is the best gift-set I could find of the books.
It's three paperbacks, with the best covers available, in a box. If you want to give His Dark Materials as a gift, then for me it's either this, or the all-in-one hard back.
on 18 November 2001
I don't have Pullman's way with words, so I can't express how good this trilogy is. I can't describe how intricately it's plotted, how widely it's imagined or how deeply it's felt. I can't conjure the dazzling array of characters that Pullman has created - all of them complex, all of them with their flaws and their contradictions - nor can I convey how intelligent this story is, or how truthful, how moving.
But it is all these things and more.
If you want to read something that will change the way you look at the world, that will move you to laughter and to tears, and that will keep you awake long into the night shaking with wonder and with fear, then read this book.
on 10 September 2003
Though this is a very good dramatisation it is simply too short to do the books justice. Each book is given two-and-a-half hours which, while it gets across the essentials of plot and character development, is not sufficient to convey the depth and nuances of Pullman's writing. The acting is excellent, comparable, in my opinion, to that in the BBC's dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings. However, I have to say that I do prefer the Cover 2 Cover full cast unabridged readings of the books to this dramatisation.
on 18 December 2001
... These are not books suitable for the under 12s. Any parents buying them should be aware that they have a fairly high body count and contain at least one torture scene.
The books combine fascinating and philosophical (in fact partly theological) plots with truly complex characters and issues of morality. This is not a schoolboy romp in the Harry Potter mould nor even a dark epic quest in the Lord of the Rings mould. If anyone has read Susan Cooper's "Dark is Rising" sequence and liked it, then the feel of the books is perhaps closest to that.
Having read the other reviews I find it hard to understand the complaint that Northern Lights starts slowly. At pretty much the very beginning is an attempted murder and a basic introduction to a new world. Most inquisitive minds will want to know why the attempted murder happened and I found that from the beginning I wanted to know more about the other world.
Fantasy is a genre that many have difficulty with. However, in His Dark Materials all the characters are very human in bearing and thought - even the armoured bears.
I cannot recommend these books as much as they deserve. I hope that in time they will take their well deserved place beside C.S Lewis's Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings. As a 25 year old I have difficulty in remembering any books that I have found as involving or morally complex.
on 26 September 2001
Wonderful! Absolutely captivating! Out of the literal hundreds of books I have read, These are hands-down the best! 'Northern Lights' is not a book you can read and then say, 'I didn't really like it, I don't think I'll read the rest.'
'The Subtle Knife' left me in awe for weeks, just thinking about the whole book, and wondering how any human being could come up with such an intricate, cliffhanging plot, and 'The Amber Spyglass' made an inconcievably fantastic end to the best trilogy ever written! In most books, you know the good side is going to win, but in 'His Dark Materials', the author often makes you think otherwise...Pullman doesn't sugarcoat. His villians are unspeakably evil, his good characters are mortal and very realistic, and then there is a grey area, namely: Lord Asriel. And all the unexpected tragedies that are sprinkled throughout the books make it truly amazing. Overall, I would, without a question give it six stars!
on 20 November 2007
This is a wonderful adaptation. The acting is really great - the voices are perfect in my mind, particularly Lyra, Will, Mrs. Coulter, the gyptians... Lord Asriel's seems perhaps strange to start with, but before long he seems great for the job. I agree with the above that the adaptations could have merited from being a bit longer - but having read the books and then listened to these it's not actually that noticable. The adapters have done well in condensing it to this space, spending most time on the most important bits - the end of the first book, for example. The adapters clearly have a great love of the book and Lavinia Murray has done a great job into adapting into two CDs worth, and the acting is really great. Highly recommended!
on 12 November 2003
I'm an avid reader, and have devoured thousands of books in my life, at least a few hundred of which are good enough to recommend. But these are something special - truly my desert island books. Simply the most real, coherent world and marvellous characters and stories.
They are not light reading, though. Don't expect an easy ride - the ideas can be challenging, sometimes even disturbing. The end of the first book, when Lyra discovers what is happening to the children is is simply chilling! The end of the third book is heart-wrenching, and I bubbled a bit when I read it.
This is not a sweet tale of adventure and friendship, though certainly these elements are there. It's not a 'chronicles of narnia' style religious allegory/fantasy - religion is certainly present, but it is dealt with seriously and in theological terms. It is not science fiction, but it makes use of theoretical physics. It is not as popular as Harry Potter, or as epic as Lord of the Rings, but it is better written than both.
Above all, it is not an easy read. But it is stunning, and beautiful, and enthralling, and satisfying, and dark, and uplifting.