Review – His Dark Materials – Phillip Pullman

The Northern Lights

Hello Internet! Guess who? Yes, it is your loyal procrastinating and complaining reviewer, Jester, back with a new season heralded by Review #34. Ah, it is good to be back! For this review I am picking apart a well-loved series by the talented Phillip Pullman. And now, the weather…

Since its release I have been playing copious amounts of the videogame Fallout 4, (and hold the unprofessional, amateur and completely justified view that if you have not clocked at least half a day of in-game time since it came out in December that you do not deserve your next-gen console/laptop which you should be using to play the damn game) and between the countless hours of fetching irradiated bear asses and complaining about the abbreviation of “sarcasm” to mean “snark” in conversation choices I have reflected on the importance of not just good narrative but the world-building, or in the case of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy multiverse-building, of a good story. Whew. Next sentence.

And what a multiverse! Pullman manages to create a dark, twisted contortion of the world we all know and love that hinges on mysterious fundamental particles called Dust, and daemons, animals existing as separate entities tied to humans by being a literal manifestation of the person’s soul. It’s a cool concept which ties in neatly to the many-worlds model the author has chosen, and it helps set the stage for the important story Pullman tells. And what is rather funny is that thanks to the fact that Pullman’s style focuses little on detail and more on events, what should take several books to explain and show whips along at a staggering pace.

This book should take a long time to finish reading. With a world which has the potential to be as intricate as Westeros or Middle Earth, all things point to a dragging, slowly-paced yet expertly detailed Gaslamp Fantasy which doesn’t as much explore a world as slog through it. But when halfway through the book your protagonist has navigated half of London, made it to the North Pole, learned the secrets of an ancient artefact and rode a freaking polar bear, every moment seems gloriously triumphant and the lore falls into place like a jigsaw scattered to the wind and landing perfectly made on the floor. I envy those who can make good metaphors easily.

However it is impossible to talk about this series without mentioning the clear bias the author has towards organised religion. Or, more specifically, Catholicism. Now, I’d be the first to admit there is a place for me in the deepest circle of hell, where I shall arrive escorted by Satan himself while he offers me the Wi-Fi password, but it almost feels like the author dislikes the very idea of the Catholic Church. Now, I am all for showing personal opinions in works of fiction, and while Pullman is no Dave Sim the representation of the Church in Lyra’s world is almost funny in how it is portrayed. A caricature of the worst parts of theocratic governments, Pullman really puts effort into painting his version of the church as a group of evil, sick people. And that wouldn’t be nice if it didn’t come off as parody, so honestly I can’t really decide what to think about it.

The Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, was published in 1995 by Scholastic UK. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – His Dark Materials – Phillip Pullman