Read These Books: An Honest Review of Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass (Northern Lights), Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass

November 17, 2007

This trilogy is collectively referred to as His Dark Materials and has been in the news of late because the movie based on the first book is to be released on December 7th of this year. As I have previously mentioned, the fundies are up in arms about books with such potent ideas and have launched a spam-paign (yes, that’s an email spam campaign) against His Dark Materials alleging that castration and female circumcision appear in the books (they don’t, read my last post for more details) and that the protagonists “kill God” (they don’t, at least not really. When will these illiterate, facile people learn to read?!). With this in mind, I present to you a spoiler-free, honest review of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Buy the books, read them, then buy copies for everyone you know. These books could start thought revolutions, and that is what has gotten those forwarding flocks of sheep shit scared.


When I was asked to describe His Dark Materials in a snappy one-liner, I came up with this gem, “it’s a story that illustrates what it would be like if theoretical physics were to manifest itself.” Needless to say, the customer decided to buy Michael Chabon’s Summerland[1] instead. Truth is, there is no way to sum Philip Pullman’s trilogy in one line. On the one hand it is a dramatic adventure story involving two accidental heroes who are tasked with saving the universe(s). On the other, it is a deeply thoughtful discourse on moral ethics and models of government. Of course, it is also an illustration of quantum physics in operation (but I think I already mentioned that).

Northern Lights begins by thrusting you abruptly into the world Pullman has created. Most novels set in a different world have some sort of preamble to acquaint you with it, introducing and defining the various terms (e.g. Rowling’s “muggle”). Granted, the way authors do this is either by bringing in a character from a more familiar environment into the novel world (Ray Bradbury favours this technique; George Lucas used Luke Skywalker to provide exposition, etc.) or by having a character reminisce about a world more akin to ours and make comparisons (e.g. Louis Wu in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series). Pullman does neither and opts instead to begin seemingly mid-way through a scene in the heart of his world. Admittedly, the resultant disorientation is a little frustrating, but one gets initiated quickly enough.

The opening scene features 11 year-old Lyra[2] in a place she’s forbidden to enter, witnessing something no one was supposed to see. This capitulates her into the heart of covert events that threaten more than anyone could have realised possible.

The Subtle Knife, starts not in Lyra’s now familiar world, but ours. With starkly different writing style to match the dramatically altered setting, I almost thought that the trilogy was a collection of unrelated stories. A new character is introduced, Will, and he is quickly pulled into the thickening plot. The well-loved friends Lyra acquired in the first book are also active in this one, ensuring that Will and Lyra are not abandoned in their unique quest.

I will take the time here to mention the fact that in The Subtle Knife Lyra becomes a submissive and nuturant character to Will’s male lead – despite the fiercely capable independence she displayed in the first book (she returns to her amazingly cool self in the next book). However, the introduction of the incredibly competent and self-sufficient (and integral) Dr. Mary Malone to the series does help compensate for the (temporary) loss of Lyra’s agency.

With literally everything hanging in the balance at the end of the second book, I cracked open The Amber Spyglass in a panicked rush. Being that us readers are now fully acquainted with all the characters and worlds, this book (quite a bit longer than the first two) starts immediately where the last book left off. Pullman does this very skilfully, revealing small bits of information such that the cliffhangers from The Subtle Knife are not resolved until the novel is well underway. Even though the pressing questions that were left by the second book are answered in the middle of the third, one almost doesn’t even notice because so much more has been introduced to the narrative. A note of caution: the content of this book is not appropriate for younger readers.

Without giving away the ending, I will comment that it is satisfying in its realism and is anything but contrived. I feel like I grew with Lyra and Will. Indeed the books cover several years in their span and the two protagonists’ journey into puberty is written so gracefully that one has to look back to realise how far they have come. I still miss Will and Lyra.

Northern Lights was published under the name The Golden Compass[3] in North America. The film adaptation, starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Dakota Blue Richards (as Lyra), will open in theatres on December 7th 2007 .

Northern Lights is the winner of the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction (UK, 1995). The Amber Spyglass was awarded both the Whitbread Prize for best children’s book (2001) and is the first children’s book to receive the Whitbread Book of the Year prize (Jan 2002).

If you enjoyed the trilogy, check out the short companion piece titled Lyra’s Oxford (and/or you could buy it for me). You can also look forward to a larger companion novel titled The Book of Dust which is still currently being written (despite the fact that its release was tentatively slated for 2005).

[1] If you are looking for a good long novel for a kid who has only read short books, Chabon has written an excellent 500 page children’s book called Summerland. A page turning novel that weaves together various creation myths, it’s sure to build confidence and reading skills. Bonus points if the kid you’re buying this for also likes baseball.

[2] Interesting note: Philip Pullman originally intended for this trilogy to be released as “General Adult Fiction”. However, the fact that his protagonist is 11 years old (for reasons central to the plot) made his publishers decide to release it as a children’s book. It is my opinion that while children can enjoy it on the one level, you need a bit more world experience under your belt to truly appreciate these three books.

[3] Here’s the story. Pullman’s working title for the trilogy was “The Golden Compasses”, referencing a line in Milton’s Paradise Lost about the compasses (the kind you draw circles with) that the Son of God used to circumscribe all creation. He then sent the first book off to the editors at Alfred A. Knopf without an attached title. The editors there thought that “Golden Compass” referred to an item in the book, and started calling the unpublished draft “The Golden Compass” in internal discussions. Meanwhile, across the pond, Pullman decided to call the trilogy “His Dark Materials” instead (also a Paradise Lost reference), and to title the first book “Northern Lights”. At this point, however, the publishers on the American side were already so attached to “The Golden Compass” that Pullman could not persuade them to publish it as “Northern Lights”. The best part about this mistake is that in America, the titles of all the books in the trilogy all potentially refer to artefacts that are central to each of the narratives. I like that kind of symmetry.


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