Pullman, Philip

About the Author:

Sir Philip Pullman was born in Norwich, England and studied English at Exeter College, Oxford.  He was knighted for services to literature in the New Year's Honours list 2019.

 

AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:

4.5 out of 5

(4 books)

La Belle Sauvage

The first book in the Book of Dust series and a prequel to Pullman's seminal His Dark Materials trilogy.  Set a decade before and in the same world as 'Northern Lights' this book is the story of Malcolm Polstead, a boy who works in his parents' pub and spends his free time on the Thames in his beloved canoe, the titular La Belle Sauvage.  His life is changed completely with the arrival in the nearby priory of the infant Lyra and Malcolm soon finds himself caught between various factions vying for control of the innocent child.

This is very much a book of two halves and it's interesting to see the way that some readers prefer one half or the other.  In the first half of the book we get to know Malcolm and his daemon Asta, whilst simultaneously getting hints and clues at the secret war going on behind the scenes of society between the oppressive Magisterium and the proponents of freedom of thought.  I found Malcolm to be a very compelling character and was impressed to see how carefully Pullman makes him a counterpoint to Lyra's later character.  Mal is, to begin with at least, infallibly honest and has a logical, practical way of dealing with problems.  Very different from Lyra's talents as a liar and tendency towards fantasy.

The second half of the book begins when a tremendous storm causes a flood of near-biblical proportions, forcing Mal, his friend Alice and the rescued baby Lyra to set out in La Belle Sauvage, closely pursued by the villain Bonneville and his hyena-daemon.  This part of the book takes on much more of the tone of traditional children's fantasy stories, as the protagonists face a series of danergous encounters, fearful challenges and brushes with the fairy realm.  It very much put me in mind of C. S. Lewis' Narnia stories (if Lewis had been an atheist rather than a devout Christian).

On top of having two tonally completely different halves, this book sometimes seems like the author wasn't sure if he was writing it for children or adults and fails to seamlessly straddle the two in the way that His Dark Materials did.  There's plenty here that would make an excellent adventure story for young people, but every so often Pullman goes in a direction that means that you probably won't find schoolkids being encouraged to read it.  The most obvious example of this is the surprising amount of hard swearing that features.  I'm a grown-up and bad language certainly doesn't bother me, but I did find it jarring to encounter the F-word quite so much in a book that many will have thought was suitable for kids.  (Apologies for writing 'F-word' there, but this website builder has filters for bad language that could cause it to block me from editing the site, so I figured I'd best not risk the word itself).

For me, the first half of the book was by far the more enjoyable and I found Malcolm pitting his wits against the fascistic servants of the Magesterium and against the deranged Bonneville to be more compelling than the fairy encounters of the latter half.  But by no means does the latter half detract from this being a good book and many actually seem enjoy that more than the first half.  The problem is simply that the two halves don't feel like they fit together as well as they should.

4 out of 5

 

Northern Lights

The first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy (known in dumber parts of the world as 'The Golden Compass').  I won't explain what this book is about because it is one of those rare books that will be many things to many people.  However, at its most fundamental level it's the story of a headstrong young girl, Lyra, who embarks on a quest to rescue her kidnapped friend Roger.  This quest has all that can be expected of it; strange lands (Svalbard), loyal companions (the gyptians) and fantastical creatures (the witches and the panserborne). 

I feel I should give a special mention to the panserborne (which translates directly as 'armoured bears').  The concept of the armoured bears seemed a little daft to me at first, but I really came to love their fierce warrior culture and the way in which their armour is their soul. 

Beyond the basic story are issues of philosophy and religion that will make for interesting reading to just about anyone who ponders such things.  Perhaps Pullman's best idea is the way in which the human soul is actually an external thing, in the form of the daemons.  I believe there's an especially poignant point being made when it's discovered that the agents of the Church are attempting to sever children from their daemons.  That part of the story is also a brilliantly written bit of horror.  You will find yourself so enamoured of the daemons (Pantalaimon in particular), that when it seems Lyra is about to be ripped apart from hers you will be on the edge of your seat. 

I very much look forward to seeing where else the trilogy will take me, but until then, my mind is still turning over what I've read already.

Followed by 'The Subtle Knife'.

5 out of 5

 

Once Upon A Time In The North

A short prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy.  As the title suggests, this story takes place in the north and focuses on the young and inexperienced (in flying, at least) aeronaut Lee Scoresby.  Lee is one of Pullman's most endearing characters and his relationship to his hare-daemon Hester is every bit as touching as that of Lyra and Pan in the main stories. 

Down on his luck and searching for work Scoresby finds himself embroiled in the politics and legality of the frontier.  In fact, despite its arctic setting, this book reads a lot like a western and that is thoroughly in keeping with Scoresby's character.  We are also treated to his first encounter with a certain "York Burningson" and the already enjoyable story goes from strength to strength from then on. 

This book's only downside is, unfortunately, a major one... it's just not nearly long enough!  I would quite happily have plowed through a few hundred pages of Lee and Iorek's early adventures, but instead we have to try to get by on less than one hundred (which also means it's quite expensive for it's length).  More please, Mr. Pullman!

4 out of 5

 

The Amber Spyglass

The conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy.  In the previous two books Pullman revealed that he had a remarkable imagination, but here that imagination explodes into numerous new wonders.  Foremost among these are the world of the mulefa and the land of the dead. 

Mary Malone's journey into the world of the mulefa is a delight to read as we discover its remarkable features (wheeled people, bird-ships, volcanic roads etc) along with her.  As for the land of the dead, amid an already intricate story the author takes us on an emotional journey through death or, rather, with death, into the afterlife. 

Meanwhile, the truth of Lord Asriel's war is revealed as actually being against the charlatan known as the Authority and his Regent, Metatron.  The 'battle on the plain' is spectacularly written as Lyra and Will search for their daemons amid the fighting multitudes of men, angels, ghosts, spectres, panserborne and others. 

This epic book winds down with an emotional rollercoaster of joy, despair, love and separation.  Having completed reading the series I have no doubt that it will be seen by later generations as one of the literary masterworks of the late-20th/early-21st Century.

5 out of 5

 

The Secret Commonwealth

Book 2 of The Book of Dust, set approximately twenty years after 'La Belle Sauvage' and ten years after the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Lyra Silvertongue has become a student at Oxford University and, when Pantalaimon witnesses a murder, finds herself once more drawn into the conflict between the forces of the Magesterium and those working against it.  Among her allies is Doctor Malcolm Polstead, who she discovers has a history with her that she never knew before, and the two of them will be pushed into parallel journeys into the Far East.

First off, it's worth pointing out that this is what is sometimes called a 'bridge novel', which is to say that it is the connection between the beginning of the story and the end, with that transition being its primary role.  You won't be able to understand this book without having first read both 'La Belle Sauvage' and the His Dark Materials books (and you should maybe even read the novella 'Lyra's Oxford', although I haven't yet).  Similarly, don't expect any significant resolution to the story here either; it ends on a distinct 'To be continued...', unlike Book 1, which had to tie-up neatly to make way for 'Northern Lights'.  In some cases this middle-part-of-the-story syndrome means that the story in question feels hollow and something simply to be endured to get from the beginning to the end (watch 'Matrix Reloaded' if you don't believe me!).  That is absolutely not the case here and Pullman manages to give us a thoroughly engaging book, even if it is one which cannot stand on its own.

I was a little slow to warm to this book because the familiar main characters were suddenly not very familiar at all.  Lyra as a young woman lacks the fearlessness and imagination of her younger self and Malcolm has become some sort of badass spy (seriously, at one point he breaks a guy's neck with his bare hands!).  However, although we're initially thrown off the deep end with these new characterisations, it soon becomes clear that the changes are entirely central to the themes of the book.  I was particularly pleased to see Lyra rediscovering some of her old talents as she travels eastwards trying to avoid the Magisterium's spies.

Interestingly, where His Dark Materials seemed largely a treatise on the benefits of rational thought over religious dogma, the Book of Dust is developing into an exploration of the idea that rational thought without imagination or wonder (without, as it were, the Secret Commonwealth) is to live without a soul.  It's a nice re-evaluation of Pullman's own previous work done through Lyra's eyes.

My final note would be that this book proves fairly conclusively that, unlike His Dark Materials, this trilogy is intended for an older readership, with swearing and violence throughout and even a harrowing attempted-rape scene.  That's neither praise nor a complaint; merely an observation.

4 out of 5

 

The Subtle Knife

The second book of the His Dark Materials trilogy.  The first thing this book does is introduce us to Will, a boy both like and unlike Lyra.  He too is faced by unknown foes on his quest to find his lost father and he also becomes the bearer of a powerful artifact (not unlike Lyra and the alethiometer).  However, Will is from our own world and has both a fierceness and a coldness that are unlike Lyra. 

The majority of the book involves Will and Lyra together moving between our world and a world known as Ci'gazze as they search for Will's father and try to understand the events they are caught up in.  Using the differing perspectives provided by the three worlds, this book begins to reveal the truth about Dust and more importantly, Lord Asriel's true intentions. 

This latter is one of my favourite elements of the book; Asriel is planning to unleash a war against God.  Throughout the book there's a wonderful peripheral sense of vast armies gathering for the coming cataclysmic war, be the warriors human, angel or otherwise. 

Now, heroic last stands aren't particularly new, but the one featured in this book is made wonderfully touching by the way in which it focuses on the man's love for his daemon, even as he feels the bullets thudding into him.  It is a rare thing indeed for a sequel to surpass its predecessor, but I certainly feel that 'The Subtle Knife' did so and then some.

Followed by 'The Amber Spyglass'.

5 out of 5

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