His Dark Materials

By Phillip Pullman

In my most recent post, I reviewed Phillip Pullman’s new book, The Book of Dust, which returns us the the world (universe? multi-verse?) of the original trilogy, His Dark Materials. That in turn caused me to detour from my previously scheduled reading list in order to plow through the original trilogy once more (and detouring was particularly difficult, because Brandon Sanderson’s latest epic just came out!).

Consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, the His Dark Materials trilogy was published between 1995 and 2000, and it is a difficult series to describe. On one hand, it definitely spills over into the “young adult” genre (Amazon pegs it as being for those “10 and up”). On the other hand, this is a series just teeming with adult themes (the innocence of children, the fall of man, original sin, a corrupt church, etc.). This is no sugar-laden lullaby of a fantasy story, but rather a thoughtful, cynical adventure that mixes religion, science and morality into potent brew. I admit I had forgotten just how “out there” the story eventually gets; how many children’s stories have you read lately that feature a knife that may or may not be able to kill God? Probably not many.

Part of Pullman’s charm is that he’s able to pull the reader along through a narrative that could easily seem clunky in another author’s hand’s. There must have been ample temptation to over-explain as he painted an increasingly complex story, but instead he’s able to use an almost minimalist style to just add enough detail to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind, while keeping his focus on our child protagonists, Lyra and Will. Ultimately, this is a universe (multi-verse, I guess) in which magical, unexplainable things happen, and Pullman asks us to just take that on faith (which is ironic, I guess, given the content of the story). I, for one, was happy to go along for the ride.

Ultimately, this is a trilogy that straddles the line between childhood and adulthood, both in terms of the reading level, and of the story itself. So while I don’t recommend that anyone run out and buy The Golden Compass for their ten year-old, this is a perfect series for an adventure loving teenager with a slightly cynical bent (or for an adventure loving adult with a slightly cynical bent, for that matter). Still not sold? Well did I mention that there are fighting armored bears with opposable thumbs?

If that doesn’t sell you, nothing will!

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Book of Dust, The Witches.

 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust, Book One)

By Philip Pullman

It feels strange to be reviewing Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage immediately on the heels of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series, because the two works could not be more dissimilar (at least not while remaining within the fantasy genre). But after the creeping darkness of Lawrence’s work, returning to the world of The Golden Compass comes with a sweet sense of homecoming.

For those readers unfamiliar with Phillip Pullman, he broke out in 1995 with the publication of The Golden Compass (also known as “Northern Lights” in the UK). Along with its sequels The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), the books composed the His Dark Materials trilogy, which were childhood favorites of mine (and, I’m sure, of many others). The original trilogy cataloged the adventures of Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, not to mention some badass panserbjorn (armored bears!). If your only exposure to Pullman’s original trilogy was the 2007 movie version of The Golden Compass, then I beseech you to forget what you’ve seen and just give the books a try. In any case, I’ll have more to say about the original trilogy shortly, as I’m now being sucked back down that rabbit hole.

La Belle Sauvage emerged 17 years after the original trilogy concluded. It is the first book in a new trilogy, and functions as a prologue to Lyra’s tale. The book follows the young boy Malcolm Polstead, who lives with his parents at an English tavern known as The Trout, which just happens to be next door to a nunnery where Lyra (as an infant) has been squirreled away. Malcolm is a classic Pullman protagonist- young, clever (though not formally educated), earnest and spirited. He’s a hard character not to like. Early on in the book, Malcolm becomes aware of some potentially nefarious activities surrounding the nunnery, and the story follows his escalating involvement in attempting to keep Lyra safe.

Often in my blog posts, I talk about how, for me, “plot trumps prose.” But with that said, there are some authors who just have such a natural way with words that I can only gape in admiration, and Pullman is certainly one of those rare few. Rationally, I know that Pullman hasn’t been sitting at a desk slowly crafting this story for the last 17 years, but I can’t quite shake that suspicion, because his prose is just so thoughtful and polished. Perhaps it’s just that I have a soft spot for the Brits (I grew up on C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Roald Dahl, etc.), but there’s just something so refined and careful about Pullman’s use of language, like there’s never a word out of place.

Ok, back to the review. Overall, I enjoyed this book very much, even if the narrative wasn’t quite as compelling as that of The Golden Compass (if I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably just that it didn’t include those sweet, sweet armored bears). Like Pullman’s other works, this is a perfect book to curl up with by a fire and sip English tea. I very much look forward to the next two books in the series.

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, The Witches

Legends of Muirwood

By Jeff Wheeler

Jeff Wheeler’s trilogy centers on the young character of Lia, in the classic role of “young servant with mysterious parentage who will grow up to be someone important.” Book one, The Wretched of Muirwood, focuses on her emergence from obscurity, and the sequels, The Blight of Muirwood and The Scourge of Muirwood, chronicle her quest to master magical powers, etc.

In a way, these books were part of the inspiration for this blog, but unfortunately not in the manner that the author would presumably hope. Instead, it’s because at a certain point in book three, I remember looking up and thinking, “why am I still reading this?”

In fantasy more than other genres, I’d argue, there’s a certain occupational hazard in assuming that any given story will continue to mature and evolve. Something like 90% of the fantasy books I pick up (I’m only half-kidding) rely on the trope of “orphan who is meant for greater things,” so I’m typically okay with cutting the author some slack while the story finds its footing and develops into something more interesting. Sometimes, however, that just doesn’t happen, and I’d argue that it doesn’t really happen here.

So if you’re in the mood for a classic “coming of age fantasy” story, I’d argue there are much better options out there (a recent example of which is The Shadow of What Was Lost, review TBD).

Rating: 1 – Skip it.

 

The Red Rising Series

By Pierce Brown

I took a trip to Iceland last fall, and in the process found myself frantically downloading books to my Kindle before I left. In the process, I ended up with Red Rising, which I hadn’t heard anything about previously.

Full disclosure: this isn’t a well-written book. I think the average sentence length is probably like 8 words, and let me tell you, this ain’t Hemingway.

“But Sam,” you say, “in your ‘About Me section,’ you say that you’re not interested in trashing authors’ work, right? Why so harsh?”

Also full disclosure: I basically inhaled this book, and its sequels Golden Son and Morning Star. Is it fine literature? Nope. Is it highly derivative of the Hunger Games? Yep. Did I read all three books within like 48 hours? You betcha.

Here’s the basic plot: in a futuristic dystopian society, a member of the downtrodden “Red” class manages to infiltrate the upper tier “Gold” class, and embarks on Hunger Games-esque adventures. And while I panned the writing of the first book, to be fair, the author is young, and improves over books 2 and 3. Throughout, Brown commands a strong control of the plot, and keeps the cliffhangers coming. If you enjoyed the Hunger Games (or even Harry Potter, for that matter), you’ll probably find something to like here. At the very least, it’s a good way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Warning: though this is something near young adult literature, there is a fair bit of violence and gore (a la The Hunger Games).

Rating: 2- Guilty Pleasure

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter