Knopf, 1995-2000 (2007 omnibus), 934 pages, C$24.50 tpb, ISBN 978-0-375-84722-6
In a way, it’s sometimes a relief to review books that everyone else has read.
Granted, my standards for “everyone else” are fairly low. But when discussing Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, “everyone else” is a lot of people. Pullman’s series may not have reached the mass-market hysteria that swept around J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (it helped that the series became popular after it was completed), but it was often mentioned in the same breath, sold widely, earned a lot of critical attention and had its first volume adapted to the big screen with an A-list budget.
The movie crashed and burned a hole in the studio’s budget, thereby ensuring no second and third film, but that’s not much of a big deal considering that the entire story, as conceived by Pullman, still exists happily on bookshelves, untainted by the film’s imperfections. In fact, it’s a bit of a wonder that the film existed at all given the original trilogy’s ambitious goals. While Harry Potter was an accessible experience for the entire family, His Dark Materials is significantly more complex, with a correspondingly more difficult style and thematic concerns that go well beyond the Young Adult market it was often aimed at.
It’s a story of a young girl discovering the world, but there’s a lot more to Pullman’s ambitions than to deliver a coming-of-age story: Before she’s through, heroine Lya will discover her unpleasant parents, see friends die horribly, venture to the land of death and eventually confront The Authority itself. While the first book is generally about her, from her perspective, the latter parts of the story shatter in multiple viewpoints, some of them ending only when the characters die while striving for their goals. Along the way, Pullman hops from one universe to the other and tackles philosophy, the nature of the universe, the way science works and how people change. It’s an almost impossibly rich mixture of themes, and trying to take it all in takes time and effort.
In fact, I’m not terribly ashamed to say that the book lay on my bedside table for nearly a year, slightly and infrequently read, until a series of airports and planes gave me sufficient motivation to finish it. It’s not particularly accessible for those who just want a story, and it takes a lot of time to rev up. By all means, see the movie to prime your imaginary engines… but don’t be surprised if it remains heavy-going.
On the other hand, the rewards for reading the story to the end are considerable. Over and over again, it’s hard not to be impressed by Pullman’s audacity, his willingness to go to difficult places, kill favorite characters, defy convention and still manage to deliver a satisfactory conclusion. The fantasy elements he brings to the story are both complex and original, never completely tipping over in familiar tropes and surprising even seasoned genre readers. He sets a high standard for himself and dares others to keep up, which is a tough but rewarding experience as long as you keep up.
Unfortunately, this demanding regimen makes it difficult to recommend the book widely. Readers with patience, some literary skills and a taste for more ambitious material will get the most out of this trilogy. But the beauty of reviewing works that “everyone else” has read is that, by now, everyone who wanted to read it was already done so.