This post covers the whole His Dark Materials series because I had more thoughts about the books as a series than the books as individual novels. I added a description for book 1 but not 2 or 3 because it’s a bit impossible to give spoiler-free summaries for those that would make any sense.
A trilogy of fantasy novels following the coming of age of two children, Lyra (~11ish at the start of the series) and Will (12ish), as they adventure through parallel universes. The series is marketed as YA fantasy but Pullman didn’t have any specific age of audience in mind when writing it (at least for the first book. It’s unclear whether that changed as he wrote the rest of the series). The title of the series comes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which the series partially retells and inverts. – Adapted from Wikipedia.
The Golden Compass (book 1)
The first book in the series is set in a parallel universe where the world is dominated by an oppressive theocracy and people’s souls live outside their bodies in the form of shapeshifting animal companions called Dæmons. The technology level is more or less steampunk, and I think the year is around the late 20th century but technological progress has been intentionally hampered by the oppressive, theocratic Church. Lyra journeys to the Arctic to rescue her missing friend and her imprisoned uncle, the latter of whom has been researching a mysterious substance referred to as Dust.
Read this series if you like fantasy and don’t mind a bit of setup for huge payoff with layers and layers of philosophical and theological themes. This whole trilogy was a delight to read because of how the plot was constructed. Every major and minor plot point felt connected. It felt like in each significant scene I would read a detail and think something like “oh, THAT’S why that character needed to go there at the end of that one chapter.” If I ever decide to try to write a fantasy novel, this trilogy would be essential reading for how to construct a satisfying plot. It also had complicated characters, none of whom I loved or hated fully (except Iorek, I ❤ Iorek), which I think is hard to pull off in YA especially. I cried like a baby at the ending.
Skip this series if you’re bothered by heavy themes of religious criticism. Where the description says the series ‘inverts’ Paradise Lost, that refers to an overarching theme of Original Sin being humanity’s greatest achievement and the root of free will. Also skip if not-very-likeable protagonists are a deal-breaker for you–especially in the first book, Lyra is kind of a brat. Also skip if you can’t handle emotional endings.
The series is so varied in its characters, settings, and plot points that while trying to write this review, I keep remembering significant portions of the books that I had entirely forgotten (like the existence of the mulefa and the dust disappearing from their world, which is what Mary spends most of book 3 looking into and the setting of the thematic climax of the whole series). Trying to describe the plot to my husband who hasn’t read the books felt like trying to remember and convey all the meandering, fantastical turns in a fever dream. It doesn’t feel at all disjointed while reading, though.
Dæmons! What a cool concept! A shapeshifting animal companion that reflects your innermost self. They can shapeshift until around when their human hits puberty, and then they settle into one shape that most describes the personality of their person. I love how Dæmons are linked with the Dust, with the idea of humanity’s Fall / original sin as an achievement of knowledge instead of a moral failing repeated in every person–you don’t really have Dust until you know yourself and discover/choose who you will be, solidifying your dæmon’s shape.
Marisa Coulter, Lyra’s mother, is one of the most complex characters I’ve come across in this year of reading, especially in fiction that’s marketed to young adults. She kept me guessing throughout the entire series, even in her last moments. For a character who spends a significant part of the first book essentially being the president of the Child Soul-Killing Experiment Factory, Marisa ended up with a remarkable degree of ethical depth. Marisa’s true motives at any moment are never really made explicit to the reader, which rings true to her character since her true motives seem unclear, surprising, and layered even to her up through the end of the series. She’s not unpredictable in an unhinged or “lol so random” way either – she’s unpredictable because the core of her character is deception, of herself as well as others.
The rest of my thoughts are easier to anchor to each book.
The Golden Compass
Discussion (book 1)
The first book in the series feels like a narrative equivalent to the first disc in a Final Fantasy game (back when they had multiple discs). There is a clear goal (Golden Compass: reach the North and find Roger; Final Fantasy VIII: find Edea and assassinate her to stop Galbadian conquest), a general sense of who might be behind the bad stuff that’s happening but a distinct feeling of mystery and complexity about what’s really at stake (GC: the Church, probably, and…children’s souls? What could they want with that?; FF8: Edea, probably, and…imperialism? Is it that simple?), and a bungling of the original goal that opens up the narrative for the next installment (GC: failure to rescue Roger; portal opens; FF8: failure to assassinate Edea, Squall possibly killed and political situation explodes). Final Fantasy games were a childhood staple for me, so this pattern feels familiar and satisfying. The ending of book 1 is also extremely Final Fantasy–basically “we’re going to sever a child’s soul so we can open a portal to another universe where we will try to stop death and sin by destroying something we discovered via religion and pseudoscience.”
The bear duel toward the end was such a great, tense, dramatic scene, but I’m a sucker for pretty much any scene with Iorek. I love the “giant gruff animal that’s fiercely protective of its small companion” archetype, and Iorek is a super fun incarnation of that. There are some incredibly vivid action sequences in that scene, culminating in the brutal visual of Iorek eating Iofur’s steaming heart on the ice in front of the rest of the bears. Keep in mind that they’re basically polar bears, so all that red would be so stark against the dirty white fur and the snow and ice.
I don’t remember the specific scenes and passages now, but another category of imagery that stuck with me was the descriptions of intense violation everyone in Lyra’s world felt when someone else touched their dæmon. Planting that seed really upped the ante when Lyra was about to have Pantalaimon cut away from her by the silver guillotine in Bolvangar, and in general it was an effective detail to convey what the world and social norms were like in a world with dæmons.
The Subtle Knife
Discussion (book 2)
Book 2 felt like a lot of exposition for the multiverse that opens up for us at the end of book 1 and a lot of setup for book 3. Bold choice to start book 2 with a completely unfamiliar character in a completely unfamiliar world. In my memory of this book, the part where we’re just with Will before seeing any trace of Lyra was much longer, but I just checked and Lyra actually comes back into the story only 18 or so pages in.
I don’t remember any of the specific plot points of book 2 except for the business with the knife in the tower and the standoff at the ravine in the end. I do remember the wraiths, though, and I think that Pullman does a great job of setting the stakes with the wraiths by showing us how they kill and using them as such an effective herding tool to get the main characters where the plot needs them to be. Knowing what the wraiths mean for a world helps clarify the necessity of the sacrifice Will and Lyra have to make at the end of book 3.
If I remember correctly, Lee Scoresby’s standoff in the ravine to hold off the Church mercenaries so Grumman had time to escape at the end of book 2 was the first time this series made me cry. What a way to end the book. Lee and Hester accept their fate, and in the intense, agonizing minutes that follow, Pullman gives us such a clear illustration of Lee and Hester’s relationship while also showing us clearly what happens to a dæmon when their human is slowly killed. I re-read the scene just now to comment on it and it made me tear up again, and I haven’t read this series in months. That’s how good it is. I should just end the review here, because the series only gets better in book 3.
The Amber Spyglass
Discussion (book 3)
Such a great culmination of a series that was a blast to read but I think even more fun to look back on. The part of this book that stands out most clearly in my memory is the land of the dead. I love that Lyra and Will fundamentally change how death and afterlife function in their multiverse, convincing the harpies to trade feeding on trapped souls’ terror for receiving stories as payment to shepherd those souls through so that they may dissolve and rejoin the universe as scattered atoms. Knowing Pullman that’s probably some kind of reference to or reversal of some specific afterlife myth, but my relatively shallow interpretation is that Lyra and Will basically exchanged Catholic afterlife (purgatory/hell and suffering) for a mildly spiritual atheist ‘afterlife’ (you no longer consciously experience the universe but your memory lives on in everything you touched in life).
Marisa’s fate was satisfying, as was the foreshadowing of her deception of Metatron in Lyra’s deception of Iofur in book 1. As I mentioned in the overall series discussion, Marisa kept me guessing until the very end. I also love how god-but-not-god died so anticlimactically, simply from exposure to air.
The ending of this book, this series, made me sob. The passages a few pages from the end where Will and Lyra vow to each other to come to the bench every year at midsummer’s day to be close to each other in their separate worlds; when they promise to move on as best as they can and accept love from new people in their own worlds and not compare all future loves to each other; …ugh, it ripped my heart out. Because at this point in the story they have been through so much together and are so thoroughly trauma bonded that no one they could possibly ever be with will understand them the way they understand each other. You can’t explain to a person what it’s like to literally go through death and come out alive, and then kill god and restructure heaven. What are those poor kids supposed to do for the rest of their lives besides feel crushingly lonely?
I know Pullman wrote more books about Lyra, set in her same universe. I haven’t read them, and I’m not sure if I’m interested. The ending to His Dark Materials was so hard but so fitting, and if further books made that ending feel less impactful, I wouldn’t want to spoil my experience of the series.