His Dark Materials Book I
by Philip Pullman
This is one of those books I was both interested in and leery of reading because of all the buzz surrounding it. Interest finally won out; I’m glad it did.
The book did have its flaws, and while it may seem unfair to lead with those, I’m going to. First, the dialect Pullman finds it necessary to foist on his readers is unfortunate and unnecessary. I doubt it would ever be a good idea to have a character use the word hisself, and here it is a fork in the eye each time it happens. Second, I realized how little patience I have for what I call the ‘cloak-wearing tropes of fantasy fiction.’ As in, really, do people have to wear cloaks and cloak-like clothing and does it always have to be a solidly sexist world? Third, if there is a nationwide manhunt for a girl with brilliant blonde hair, why wouldn’t someone dye it darker?
None of these flaws, even taken in combination, are major. They are annoying, and only because I liked the book enough to care, to want it to be even better. (As it is the first of a trilogy, I’ll see if these sorts of things improve or not.)
I liked the book because I found the premise appealing. It is set in a world where science never managed to separate itself from the Church, so theology and physics aren’t unrelated disciplines. Something strange is going on in this world, and a young girl is drawn in to events beyond what she can understand at the outset because she is a pivotal figure in the events that will transpire. And yes, you do know that from the outset — not exactly prophecy, but destiny is invoked early on.
Dæmons are one of the most interesting creatures in the book. Well, they aren’t actually separate creatures, they are animals that share a consciousness with their person. All human beings (and witches) have dæmons. Children’s dæmons can change form, becoming a dolphin, moth, cat, mouse or any other kind of creature. They can’t go very far from their people, and they settle into a permanent form when children grow up. What kind of dæmon a person has supposedly says a lot about who they are. All servants have dog dæmons, witches always have birds because theirs can travel some distance apart, and most people have a dæmon of the opposite sex, but not everyone does. Dæmons mean individual people are never truly alone. From a storytelling perspective, it means Pullman can put things into conversation that otherwise he couldn’t.
I found the most compelling characters in the story to be the armored bears. These bears have human-like hands, and they are skilled metal workers. A bear’s armor is his soul (similar, or is it the same? as a person’s dæmon) and they have strict moral codes. One bear, Iorek, who is a central character in this book, was stripped of his armor and sent into exile. He made himself new armor, but it was taken from him by townspeople who tricked him. Iorek drinks because he doesn’t have his armor; he tells Lyra (the pivotal and recognizable blonde girl) he won’t need to drink anymore once he gets his armor back. She is fascinated by Iorek because he doesn’t have a dæmon, and because apparently bears have the power to make their own souls.
The book also has boat people, scholars, Church bureaucrats, Turkish kidnappers, and Tartars who practice trepanation. There are forces of destiny, questions of theology, and meditations on knowing yourself and embracing your identity. Pullman isn’t afraid to have his characters hurt, and he will kill them (and not just an “Ensign Smith” character.)
The book ends on a cliffhanger note — one crisis resolved only to point to another — as a reader would expect from the first book in a planned trilogy. I will read the next one, hoping for fewer annoying ticks and more resonating stories like Iorek’s. Recommended.