Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Reading for pleasure: His Dark Materials

At 8:30 on Saturday morning I sat down at the breakfast table with The Amber Spyglass, the final book of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. At 4:30 pm, I put the book down and took the dog for a walk. In between, I read.

So obviously the books are captivating and hard to put down. They are written for young adults so the reading is not difficult and, most of the time, the plot propels you forward. But I did have some quibbles that prevent me from raving about how wonderful the books are. Sorry for all of the die hard fans out there.

Spoiler alert: I've tried to minimize the spoilers below but maybe something has slipped out uninentionally. Please forgive me.

The first book was immensely satisfying. Even though it ends with the main character making a leap into the unknown, it felt like a complete, self-contained book. The heroine, an ~12 year old girl named Lyra is michevious and adventurous and has a mysterious past - just the way you want a heroine to be. The "bad guys" aren't clearly defined but only emerge as Lyra discovers new facts about them. The setting, in a world much like 19th century(?) England, felt comfortably familiar but with a few twists to remind you that this is not the England you might be used to. The people have souls (daemons) that reside outside their bodies in the form of animals that take the form of their true character. Children's daemons change, but adults are fixed. And that difference is crucial to the strange adventures in which Lyra finds herself.

The second book did the least for me - it seemed to bring dozens of new plot strands and characters into play - without making it clear (even by the end of the book) how they were all connected. The third book suffered from some of the same problems of over-abundance of characters and plot lines, but most of them were resolved by the end. As they should be in a trilogy. But still there were characters who had major chunks of their story missing - they had knowledge that was never explained or ended up somewhere without it being clear how or why. I felt that the writing was strongest in the first book and weakest in the third.

One thing that I really didn't like was having children as innocent victims. I get enough of that on the news and as an expectant mother hearing about bad things happening to kids gets to me in way far beyond what it ever did before. I'll admit to shedding some tears in the first book. However, I liked how the child protagonists had such independence and free will. I didn't like that epic battles between "good" and "evil" were to be waged by iron and machines. I felt like so many parts of the plot hinged on deeds mental or magical that having an old-fashioned blow-em-up sort of showdown was a let-down.

What I did really like was the way science was crucially interwoven with the story. Human's attempts to understand the universe and their place within it and how that gets entangled with religion is ultimately what the trilogy was about. Sciency subjects from dark matter to evolution to global warming and polar bears fleeing melting icecaps all made their way into the book. I don't think that someone would learn science from reading these books, but they couldn't help but think about it.


Dr J. said...

I actually felt somewhat let down by the trilogy. The first book I really enjoyed but the next two...well, maybe they suffered in that I read them both in a 20 hour period.

I felt a bit cheated in the end. It felt a bit to me as if the books were just written to take pot shots at the Church. Admittedly not something that would usually annoy me, but that was then combined with an ending (despite the "scientific" attempts to classify it) which was a bit too deus ex machina.

It started with a religous explanation, became a scientific one which then turned religous in itself again.

But, like I said, I read it pretty fast. Maybe I interpreted it incorrectly.

ScienceWoman said...

Dr. J - No I agree - I felt the ending was a disappointment. I just didn't feel like I had adequately mentally digested the final explanation to talk about it in my post.

But now I have to go look up "deus ex machina."

ScienceWoman said...

Ooh good phrase. I'll have to remember that one. (For others in the dark, here's the wikipedia definition.

pierdolapaciencia said...

It might feel good spending your free time in this way, right?

In my case, as a M1 student, I'm pretty much busy with my lectures and hardly had free time during the 1st semester. Now that I'm a little used to how things work and I'm more confident in my command of Japanese, I'm determined to make me some free time to go to the gym. Must get rid of the kilos I put on since I came...

Female Science Professor said...

My daughter and I read the Hi Dark Materials series together when she was 8, and she loved them. Keep the books around for when your kid is older, even if that seems like an impossibly distant time in the future!

Sandra Porter said...

I read the first two books with my kids. All the time, I kept thinking "I wish I had a daemon."