Although it's 3 physical books for publishing reasons, His Dark Materials (HDM)is one continuous story (well... see below), so I'm reviewing the whole...moreAlthough it's 3 physical books for publishing reasons, His Dark Materials (HDM)is one continuous story (well... see below), so I'm reviewing the whole set. It isn't useful to review one part alone.
HDM is a decent read with many great elements. On Orson Scott Card's "MICE" scale--Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event--it's mostly a Milieu story, so expect a tour of the world(s), focusing on the strangeness therein and the history thereof. It's a great setting with many fabulous ideas underlying the various worlds, so enjoy it. Put it in the same space as The Phantom Tollbooth or Gulliver's Travels.
In fact, it is a direct descendant of Gulliver. Whereas Swift used Gulliver to compare and lambaste political groups of his day, Pullman uses HDM to address questions of morality, responsibility, and sacrifice. He isn't as successful as Swift, but very few are.
Structurally, HDM is three stories, but they're intertwined from the very beginning. The foreground (and best-known) story is a classic milieu-as-character setup. Our two pre-adolescent protagonists, Lyra and Will, travel across worlds and regions of the worlds meeting different kinds of people (including the requisite cast of disposable, self-sacrificing allies) and facing episodic dangers; it's an adventure tale in the "come back more mature" mold and it works passably. The character development is slight, but the maturation element--Lyra slowly falling in first love with Will--is handled with delicacy and grace.
The adventure story is marred by some very strange author intrusion--one particularly jarring section explaining that Lyra's skill at inventing stories and telling them is lying and therefor unrelated to imagination, which she doesn't have--and a strange and unbelievable detachment from any sense of loss in the children when friends and family are taken from them. Neither character is particularly likable or sympathetic, either.
The second, and more successful, story--the Character story in Card's taxonomy--is off-camera in the first book and comes more and more to the forefront as the story continues. This involves the tension between Lyra's estranged parents, their individual world-shattering goals, and their love (or lack thereof) for Lyra. It's a redemption story and the only real weakness is not showing us any changes in her father until the very end when we learn that they must have happened. This isn't as bad as it seems since her father is extremely taciturn and hides his plans and goals even from his closest allies. If the books had focused on this story entirely, they would have been far more effective but probably far less popular.
The third story is the Idea story and fails almost completely. There are rarely more than three pages in a row of non-narrative explanation of the author's moral and ethical beliefs and they are often couched in the fantasy metaphors of the main stories, at least, but Pullman's judgments of the main characters--unsupported by the events in the story and invalidating the value of the story if true--would disrupt any enjoyment the books had if they weren't so easily dismissed.
The book also sets up a variety of elements it never follows up on: the process of moving from childhood to adulthood is a major question underlying the magic of the story and often discussed but is never actually probed, the nature of the soul is a recurring question that drives all of the characters but is never discussed in interesting real detail, the distinction between soul and spirit is raised--even referencing Aquinas by name--but its relation to the story is dropped immediately, and the relationship between free will and sin (including a threat to free will itself) underlies the character story but that either dissolves into a question of sentience or disappears altogether.
Major plot holes, lost plot elements, and gracelessly dropped storylines also mar the books. The single item driving the "ticking clock" of the adventure story is every faction's belief that Lyra has a crucial choice to make that will determine the fate of the multiverse. If she ever makes that choice, it is completely unclear. A prophesy of Lyra committing a "great betrayal" that will "hurt her greatly" is tossed away on a small sacrifice that is not clearly a betrayal, does not hurt her any more than her companions (who make the same sacrifice), and leads to greater power and freedom for her and her dearest friend. The highest tension plot thread--an assassin tailing Lyra across multiple worlds, coming closer and following her friends to reach her, is resolved with--literally--a deus ex machina producing a small redemption plot element but leaving the assassin story--if you'll pardon the pun--bloodless.
On the plus side, the cast of characters is fabulous. The mother's daemon (her soul in an externalized form, much like a familiar--every human character from Lyra's world has one) is truly terrifying, and her mother and father are close behind. The random allies she meets--such a talking polar bear, a Texan aeronaut, a "gyptian" (sort of a gypsy) king(1) and the seer/scholar who attends him, and a pair of gay angels--are well-drawn and lovable characters with flaws and motives of their own, although a few--the queen of a witch clan and a scientist from our world--are less effective.
The villains are deliciously evil, dripping in cold, fascist malice or driven by a hot and frightening hatred. The use of the daemons to show a person's character and mood is an excellent device. When a snake slithers out of one man's sleeve we know instantly that he is hiding things and is cold-blooded. The jackrabbit daemon of the Texan tells us that he is always aware and able to move instantly, despite his slow drawl and easy nature. And her father's regal snow leopard shows us his strength, his confidence, and his brutality. Not that we need the leopard to see that....
So these are a fun enough read. Ignore the philosophizing; it doesn't go anywhere and it doesn't actually impact the other stories in the ways it seems like it should. In the end, none of the characters are as driven by faith, fear, or belief as they claim. Enjoy the adventurous tour of the multiverse with Lyra and her discovery of her burgeoning adolescence (really, that is very well handled). Watch the parents for their slow, secret changes and the real motivations behind their grandiose schemes; marvel at their audacity and confidence as well. Lament the dead, cheer in the bravery, and remember that this is a children's book above all; it should be larger-than-life and show decisions and consequences more clearly than they truly are.
Fun read. Worth the time if you have it. But don't put down something else to read it first.
The movie makes some interesting changes, btw, some of which are more successful that then book. See it for Sam Elliot, if nothing else.
(1) Yes, we get the proverbial "King of the Gypsies." Only he's not lying about it. (less)
Interesting book. The "I'm really cool and my main character is wisecracking and this world is way weird and I'm going to play games with whether Luci...moreInteresting book. The "I'm really cool and my main character is wisecracking and this world is way weird and I'm going to play games with whether Lucifer is evil and what demons are and... and... and..." breathlessness is old hat, of course, but it never gets to the annoying "breathless" stage and the cheap one-liners are actually funny. I kept handing pages to my gf to read.
The plot: our protagonist learns about multiple worlds and layers of invisible weirdness, sells his body to the supposedly-good-guys who keep the universe in balance (but who are hated and feared for destroying people at random) to save his best friend from being killed by them, joins up with an assassin because she's cute and he's gormless, agrees to go to Hell to steal a magic book (dragging along his best friend), meets allies along the way, and ultimately has to learn to shut up and trust himself enough to destroy the universe to save it.
Like I said, old hat, but not truly tiresome. And some of the jokes are great. The character development is subtly handled and pretty nice, especially since it's never really commented-on after a change, only before.
The deus(?) ex machinae are fine. This kind of book needs some. The side characters are fun. The locations are entertaining and no one stays around long enough for them to get tiresome.
The best part is the lack of pretension in the main character. He's pretension enough for the setup, but he knows it and doesn't try to hide (most) of his flaws. He's willing to admit mistakes and he doesn't mind acting like a not-hero. Actually, learning to act like a hero is part of his arc.
Throughout the book, I kept thinking that it had snuck by as readable and enjoyable, but there was no way the next chapter would hold my interest without annoying me. But no chapter actually did annoy me enough to matter and they stayed interesting.
Friends have been trying very hard to get me to love Stross. I liked (but didn't love) Halting State enough. This was a poor choice for a second. It...moreFriends have been trying very hard to get me to love Stross. I liked (but didn't love) Halting State enough. This was a poor choice for a second. It may have put me off Stross all together.
The setup is simple enough: 0. Start with an interesting criminal investigation plot and abandon it in three chapters 1. Take Amber, but with only two worlds to jump between 2. Give the protagonist an almost Heinleinesque array of skills to perfectly prepare her for whatever comes up, but take away any pretense to her having goals; just let her drift along being scared and planning to do something--with no idea what--"when the time comes" 3. Remove all subtlety from the politics 4. Spend 2/3 of the book doing absolutely nothing 5. Throw in some unnecessary and unbelievable sex to make the protagonist seem desperate and easy 6. End with nothing accomplished. Actually have a denouement without a climax
Oh, and throw in three chapters scattered throughout the book that have nothing to do with anything on-stage so far, just to shout "Hey, look! I have stuff going on you don't know about! Keep reading the series!"
On the plus side, A. Take time out after every interesting scene that could move the plot to reflect on the socioeconomic forces that come into play or the implications and limits of the magical technology and how it correlates to the industrialization of third-world countries.
In short, replace all story with author intrusion.
Now, I like Stross' discourses on how Arab princes could import luxuries and live in opulence but didn't have the transport or infrastructure to import materials to industrialize. I like his discussion of what you could do to make money or secure power with the world-walking ability in the book (most effective: drug smuggling). I'd read a book that abandoned all pretense to plot and alternated essays and short stories on those themes. But I do kind of want a story in my story.
Quite fun. Fairly typical of the non-major-character stories in the series, although Moist von Lipzwig might be becoming a major character. The plot i...moreQuite fun. Fairly typical of the non-major-character stories in the series, although Moist von Lipzwig might be becoming a major character. The plot is a simplification of Going Postal: Vetinari ropes Moist into leaving his post as Postmaster and taking over as Assistant to the chairman of the Bank of Ankh-Morpork. Seeing as the chairman is a lapdog, this puts him in charge. The family that has run the bank for generations doesn't like this, the bank manager doesn't like Moist, and a mad scientist in the basement with an Igor is about to Do Something.
Oh, and Moist's girlfriend Spike is stirring up trouble with the golems again and might be starting a war with the Low King. Which is actually kind of tame for her. On the plus side, there is a lecherous lich leering after her, so Moist gets to get jealous.
As with all the Vetinari-centered, non-major-character stories (and with about half of the Vimes stories), this one is about the city as a living character in and of itself, asking the same question governments have been struggling with for thousands of years: what makes something valuable, and how can we get control of it? Ankh-Morpork is on the gold standard, which is entirely too inelastic for Moist's view of the world, but no Discworld economist has proposed any alternative and people don't know whether they can trust money they can't block magic with.
The economic question of automation springs up again, although the take on it is from the other side than it was in The Truth: what if it isn't one craft that's reduced from an industry to a cottage craft but instead categories of unskilled labor? How does the ripple of economic change spread and how can it gain momentum instead of lose it. This is always presented to Moist in the negative sense: how his rash ideas that words and passions can save people more than sensibility and money can could destroy even Ankh-Morpork; it takes him a long time to see the flip side of that coin.
On the downside, this isn't really anything excitingly new for Discworld. I'll keep reading the same stuff from Pratchett forever--it's brilliant. But sometimes he rises above the (already high) crowd and gives us a Night Watch, or a Fifth Elephant; if the occasional Monstrous Regiment is the price we pay to get them, then I'm happy to pay it.
I did laugh out loud through this one, reading far too many lines to my girlfriend (who was waiting to read it after me), so it's great in that Discworld-is-funny way (unlike, say Monstrous Regiment or Thud), but it's one of those "wait for the coincidences to catch up and then for Vetinari to show that he's known it all along" books, which are just so-so in my opinion.
Well, well worth reading for the humor, but don't drop Night Watch for it.(less)