Dark Materials

It has been a long while since I read any new (to me) fantasy. I’ve re-read Lord of the Rings a few times, will probably give Dune a second go at some point and, like millions of others, am waiting for George R. R. Martin to pull his finger out and finish Game of Thrones. But, those aside, and after cramming as much of the genre as I could into myself during early years, I kind of lost interest.

Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials series is not new – the first volume came out in 1995 and the series was completed in 2000 – but I’d never heard of it until I visited Scotland last autumn and was given all three volumes – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

The first is by far the best. Northern Lights concerns the tale of Lyra, a deliciously repulsive young girl whose adolescence in an alternate-world Oxford is interrupted when her estranged father comes by and reveals a horrible secret. Lyra is then for all practical purposes kidnapped by her estranged mother, who she finds out to be horrid; Lyra escapes, takes up with alternate world travellers (gypsies) and sets off to the northern part of the planet.

Lyra, like all people in her world, has a daemon, a shape-changing animal that expresses the type of personality a person is. Children’s daemons, like children’s personalities, change; adults’ daemons are set in their form. The link between a person and her daemon is sacred and breakable only upon death – or so everyone believes. But both Lyra’s father and mother, for very different reasons, are finding ways to break those links. Lyra’s mother is trying, if not out of gratuitous cruelty, at least on behalf of the forces of nastiness (a kind of other-world Catholic Church); to her father, however, the severance of the bond is for a greater good.

What’s delightful about the first book is the inventiveness, the charming bond between daemon and child, the fact that Lyra is an obnoxious child but one who is interesting, and the setting, for most of the book, in the frozen wastes of the north. With the exception of a hook at the finale into the trilogy – which has the feeling of a hook grafted on – the book stands alone.

The second volume, The Subtle Knife, introduces Will, a boy in this universe, who stumbles into an alternate universe – and another – and another. Eventually he stumbles into one that Lyra has found herself in, and the two become friends. They become part of a cosmic conflict which builds further in the third part, The Amber Spyglass. This conflict is central to the plot, but I never really understood it. Sure, good versus evil, but why now? And the finale happens off-camera so I wasn’t sure who won or, come to that why it mattered. Or even why it happened – it seemed more of a plot device to bring Lyra and Will to their destiny than part of the plot. But, by then, Lyra has become such a sweet, well-behaved little girl that she’s completely uninteresting. As to WIll, I struggled to be interested in him from page one.

The two later volumes reminded me, in other words, why I lost interest in the genre: unchecked inventiveness. In Northern Lights, the inventiveness serves the plot. In the final battle of The Amber Spyglass, weird creatures are being introduced for no other reason than to be paired off with other weird creatures in mutual annihilation. Where Tolkien had orcs, goblins, trolls and elves, dwarves and hobbits each with distinct histories, Pullman’s creatures are a menagerie of placeholders, none convincing and few of them interesting.

Which is a shame. There were lots of parts of the trilogy I enjoyed. But somehow, the whole was less than the sum of its parts.