His Dark Materials

I have just finished reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I can’t remember when I last felt that mixture of joy and sadness after having read something wonderful.

I’d never before taken a closer look at Philip Pullman’s work. Then, late December, for some reason I cannot exactly recall, it caught my eye (perhaps it was reading that Neil Gaiman is a fan), and I ordered the first volume, Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass). These were quickly followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Nits can be picked about these books. There were times where it was not really clear to me what was happening, or events which I felt were important went by quickly or did not seem as dramatic as I thought they should be. But in general I had a great time reading these books, and the good bits more than outweighed the bad bits. The inventiveness of the setting (and the nice way Mr. Pullman handles the exposition), the epic scope of the story (which didn’t became clear to me until the second book), the pace of the adventure, the forceful and lyrical writing style, and especially the great characters. Lyra, the heroine, has the same subtle and thoughtful approach to life’s problems as Conan the Barbarian, especially in the beginning. But she is not the only great character. Will Parry, Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison (how cool are armoured bears?), Serafina Pekkala, Mrs. Coulter (no relation, but it helped me visualize her as evil), the Gallivespians: they are all original and vibrant.

What reminded me of computer games: the story is set in a fantasy-ish universe with various new physical laws, similar to how fantastic settings are used in games to explain the gameplay. Starting in the second book, the story contains an element which is quite similar to a gameplay element of Zelda: A Link To The Past. Also, although the characters are great, the plot is what keeps things moving (and occasionally one can feel the strain). Objects are very important. Characters obtain objects that provide new possibilities, only to lose them again (the knife, the alethiometer). Other character’s won’t help the main character until she has performed certain tasks for them, such as gathering objects or information (e.g. Iorek’s armour).
Many parts of the plot reminded me of typical gameplay elements. Except, of course, that the book evoked much richer and deeper emotions than most games… Here lies our challenge.

Anyway. I regret that I will probably never see the stage version. Apparently it’s already sold out, and because of the technical challenge of compressing a universe-spanning fantasy epic into a two-part play, it won’t play in other theatres. Well, at least I can read the book about the play.

Comments 4

  1. Stephane Bura wrote:

    I have some problems with these books. The beginning and the end are so good and the middle so weak (Lyra just follows the instructions of the aletiometer for more than 300 pages) that it makes me cringe.
    Very powerful scenes and ideas in there, though, like Will’s destiny, the wheeled creatures, people’s relationships with their daemonic “souls”, etc.
    I’d be interested in reading what ideas it gave you.

    Posted 21 Jan 2004 at 14:09
  2. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    I didn’t have any issues with the middle (although it didn’t feel as exciting as the first or last bits). On the other hand, I didn’t like the wheeled creatures much. It’s all subjective I guess.

    Posted 21 Jan 2004 at 22:11
  3. caro 2 wrote:

    They are re-running the show at the National Theatre starting this December. Tickets are on sale now and I thoroughly recommend seeing it all on the same day.

    Posted 05 Apr 2004 at 12:45
  4. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    That is excellent news! I will start planning a trip to London immediately. I haven’t been there for ages.

    Posted 05 Apr 2004 at 16:40