Recent Reads: His Dark Materials trilogy

First, a confession: it took me much longer than it should have to read this trilogy. My dad bought The Golden Compass in a local children’s bookshop when I was about ten years old (I recall the store fondly because it had the best reading nook I’ve ever encountered: an artificial tree molded into the wall, with a perfectly kid-sized hollow lined with cushions. That’s an experience Amazon can never replace, alas) and read it aloud to me. Bedtimes became imagination expeditions into a universe full of cosmic Dust and daemons, hot air balloons and armored polar bears (my dad’s stentorian voice brought those ursine characters to life)! I loved the story, and even re-read it when the movie came out over a decade later. But somehow I never read the other two novels. Maybe I just got distracted, or maybe I didn’t want to risk spoiling my charming memories of the original book.

Well, I finally did it. I finished the series in a week of late-night binge reading. Lyra, the scrappy heroine of The Golden Compass, stumbles into a parallel world. So does Will, a stoic boy from modern-day England running from mysterious assailants. Her quick-witted street smarts and his calm strength keep them a step ahead of assassins, thieves, and soul-eating Specters. The two take accidental possession of The Subtle Knife, a mystical blade capable of opening portals between worlds. The children befriend a physicist studying dark matter and she constructs The Amber Spyglass to reveal the secrets of Dust. Meanwhile, Lyra’s father Lord Asriel marshals his forces for a final assault against the oppressive Authority. But it is Will and Lyra who must undertake an unthinkable journey to liberate humanity, and they who must make a heartbreaking sacrifice.

Despite a few unresolved plot points and a somewhat anticlimactic final battle, it was an enthralling story. But then, how could quantum physics + steampunk x alternate realities = anything but awesome? I appreciated how Pullman took a simple adventure story and layered it with science and philosophy. Many groups object to the books as anti-religious, but I found them surprisingly positive from a spiritual perspective. The notion of connectivity with the universe—our physical forms crafted of the same particles that make trees and stars and waterfalls—comforts and uplifts. Of course, that’s no promise of a happy ending. I realized halfway through the final book that there was only one way the story could conclude, but when I got there I cried anyway. (Thankfully, I dreamed up my own narratively consistent epilogue that makes things much more satisfactory.) It took me almost twenty years to finish this epic.  It will stay with me at least that long.

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