Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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I Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust

About a month ago, lodessa made an excellent post of things to read in a post-Harry Potter world. One recommendation was His Dark Materials:
3) Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy
* Huge aspirations
* Being made into a major movie
* Interesting Theological Concepts
* Strong World Building
* Bit off more than it could chew... but still chewed enough to be worthwhile
* Classified as Children's/YA fiction but more appropriate for adults

The major movie had piqued my interest in the books, which I had heard of over the years, though I can't remember why. Perhaps you have heard of them too, whispered in the hallways, invisible waves ofapproval radiating through the air. The movie marketing led to discussion of the book by fans such as hobviously and atropos116, whose claims that the books were "SO AWESOME" finally convinced me to give them a shot.

The Golden Compass has one of the most confusing first chapters I've ever read, perhaps rivaling Foucault's Pendulum. Pullman just drops you into this world with Lyra and her dæmon as if it's perfectly normal. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Lyra's world is very similar to our world, but not exactly the same (for instance, the whole dæmon thing). Even though Pullman specifically explains that the first book takes place in a universe like ours and that our universe does not appear until the second book, it was still hard to comprehend. The first chapter feels like you're in the middle of the book (as Tropie said, he takes in medias res very seriously), but, when you look back, it truly is the beginning of the story, for Lyra. It's the reader's handicap that he doesn't know what the hell is going on. Thankfully, Pullman drops in some helpful exposition in the third chapter, and he continues to explain the dæmon concept by showing and not telling, which is pretty masterful. A lot of the fun of the first book, in my opinion, is learning what dæmons are and how they work, so I don't want to say too much about it. Suffice it to say that they are animal companions (and not demons).

One thing that struck me (and got me through the confusion) is that I really liked Pullman's writing style. It was prose-y enough to be interesting but not so prose-y as to be trying too hard to be an Important Piece of Literature. He plays a wryly omniscient narrator for the most part, connecting the story to the past and future when appropriate. What's fun about the narration is that, despite its omniscience, it is rarely intrusive. That is, there are many times where a character learns something that, to the reader, has great significance but to the character is not immediately relevant because he does not know all that we do. And Pullman lets the reader put the pieces together himself. He also has a great talent for simile and metaphor: "Lyra's knowledge had great gaps in it, like a map of the world largely eaten by mice."

The Subtle Knife raised the series to the level of awesomeness I had been expecting, as it had me flailing at points. This was truly one long story being told in three parts.

The Amber Spyglass, unfortunately, did not completely deliver what I was hoping/expecting. While I was not catastrophically unsatisfied, I was not deeply satisfied either.

People may ask—okay, people do ask how this series compares to Harry Potter, and I give the following response:

I think Philip Pullman is a better prose stylist than J.K. Rowling, and he tries to be a little more complex and adult, but his characters aren't as vibrant and alive. Really, it's hard to compare the two because they're...not really comparable. One is a seven-book series about a boy wizard defeating the Dark Lord. The other is a trilogy about a whole bunch of other shit.

The thing about Pullman's characters is that he relies on their inherent natures rather than truly characterizing them. I like them, and they are cool, but somehow, they don't feel as real as Rowling's. Like, I think J.K could tell me what Harry ate for breakfast on any given day. I don't think Pullman cares what Lyra ate for breakfast on any given day. Except that she would lie about it.

Why do I recommend this series? Any number of reasons. I like that Lyra's defining character trait is that she is a liar. Protagonists in children's literature are so often goodie-goodies because, well, they're kids. I really like, as a correlation, the theme of truth in the books. It's hard to explain, but there's a recurring thread about how true things are true, and it sounds stupid when I say it like that, but it's really neat in context. I like the important role that storytelling plays. Really, my favorite thing about the books is the ideas. One thing that becomes apparent in Lyra's world is that they don't seem to have anything called "physics"...but they do have this field called "experimental theology" that sure sounds similar. Yeah. In much the same way I love Christopher Pike for mixing vampire mythology with Hindu mythology, I love Philip Pullman for mixing Christianity with quantum physics. Also, there are witches and talking bears. (Hey, you got sci-fi in my fantasy! Hey, you got fantasy in my sci-fi!)

In case you haven't heard, there is a rather large religious component to the books, and Pullman is an anti-theist. So, if you are deeply religious, or especially deeply Christian, you might find the books deeply offensive. The story is highly influenced by Paradise Lost, from whence the title of the series comes. Personally, I found some of the religious concepts fascinating, but I also thought the narrative was pretty imbalanced toward painting religion and God as bad. I'm not entirely sure it was necessary in order to get across the ultimate message of the book, which I did like, but it's there all the same, for better or worse.

So I think that's it for the unspoilery section of this post. If you were considering reading the books, may this be the final kick in the pants you need. If you had never heard of them before now, may this be your chance to learn more and perhaps check them out yourself. They appear to be immensely popular. It would make you cool.

If you are already cool, follow me behind the cut. Uncool ones, beware of spoilers in the comments.


This is some buffering text for your eye to focus on, as you examine this post. Look here and not below, for below there are spoilers, and you would not want to read them, now would you? You would be spoiled! Your enjoyment would be ruined! How sad that would be for you. You might start crying. You might jump in a river. You might do something you may later regret, like sleep with your teacher. These are all documented side effects of being spoiled, and I don't want you to go through that. You should have the freedom to scroll. Scroll, dear reader, scroll to your heart's content and read only these darkened words.


Oh, what to talk about! I guess I'll go through a bunch of things that were kinda awesome. I cracked up every time Lyra's proficiency in lying was mentioned. I loved that the two protagonists are a liar and a murderer. The Iorek/Iofur fight was really sweet. The cliffhangers at the end of the first two books were EVIL. Er. This is not the best spoilery part of a post ever.

I believe the moment the series went from good to AWESOME for me was when Mary talked to the Shadows. It reminded me of Sphere, and I love those kinds of scenes, where you're communicating with this sort of alien consciousness. A precursor to this awesomeness was the scene when Lee Scoresby interviews the guys about Stanislaus Grumman, and one of them says that he sort of appeared out of nowhere so many years ago, and I audibly cursed as I realized that he was Will's father. It was such a cool moment, and I loved that Pullman sort of slips it in there without any sort of "HEY! LOOK AT THIS COOL REVEAL I AM DOING!" because Lee Scoresby, of course, has no clue about Will and there is no place in the narrative for a true reveal. In many ways, the second book kind of made the first book retroactively more awesome.

I love that the alethiometer sort of has a personality, that it sometimes "wants" to tell Lyra more, that it has a specific way of referring to itself.

I actually think my favorite character in the series is Mary Malone. Because she is like us, the readers. She is a normal person thrust into this fantastical story, and she reacts like a normal person would react. With a healthy dose of skepticism and bewilderment, but adapting after a while. Plus, she gets to MacGyver the titular spyglass. Science rules! (I really wonder who they'll cast. I get the sense that she's not supposed to be that hot in the book, but she'll surely be hot in the movies, because it's a movie. Woo.)

Lyra gets the golden "compass," Will gets the subtle knife, and Mary gets the amber spyglass. Eve, Adam, and the serpent. (As erroneous as the title The Golden Compass is, I prefer it to Northern Lights because of the parallelism with the other titles.)

I did not really give a flip about the touted "gay angels" and found Balthamos supremely irritating, but I did sort of cheer when he made a surprise appearance at the end to take out Father Gomez.

The DNA-targeted bomb was about as ridiculous as reading brain waves from space, but it was a cool idea.

I loved the "Tell them stories" motif. I liked that the ultimate message of the book was basically "Be excellent to each other. And also smart and creative and stuff." There was sort of a "Go humanity! Live up to your fullest potential!" vibe.

Oh, all right. It seems that most people I have talked to don't like the third book for various reasons. Let's talk about them! Perhaps we can strip away even more of jennythen's love of the books than I already have.

There are like a hundred pages where Lyra is ASLEEP. That is no fun. Perhaps a petty complaint, but still.

Larger is my complaint for the entire "world of the dead" storyline. It comes out of nowhere, and it feels like a way to keep Lyra and Will busy while the adults are upstairs plotting and planning and explaining the plan, which they had plotted after they thought of it. And Lyra really needs to apologize to Roger that much? He's twelve! He doesn't blame you!

I didn't like the concept of deaths like I liked the concept of dæmons, and I thought it was patently ridiculous that Lyra could fool her own death. Sure, she could deceive the King of the Bears, but deceiving her own death, a part of her, is like deceiving Pan, and you would certainly call foul on that, right?

I was completely baffled about the fact that Lyra was able to leave Pan behind and no one said anything. We had very explicitly been told and shown that you can only go so far from your dæmon. The man who hung onto Lee Scoresby's balloon died when he was pulled too far from his dæmon. When Lyra said she would die if she left Pan behind, she meant it literally. And, yet, there was no incredulous comment that all they felt was quite a bit of heartrending pain. I know it was finally explained/handwaved by Serafina Pekkala at the end as akin to some witch rite of passage, but I would have liked some fucking acknowledgement that something fishy was going on because Lyra never seemed to notice that she wasn't dead and that when she got back above ground, that Pan, like, was able to stay away from her. The fact that Lyra didn't say anything made it seem like it was perfectly natural, but it went against the rules he had previously so well defined. And then it was never really explained why Will's dæmon finally manifested, but I guess that may be included in the witch/shaman handwave.

I sort of like the idea of ghosts as part of a tripartite existence (spirit/soul/body), but I didn't get the concept of the world of the dead at all. Seriously, there is one world where every living being who has ever died stands around and moans? And while it has this sort of ooga-booga vibe surrounding it, you can cut windows and shit, just like it was a regular parallel world. I could not fathom a physical realm like that, and one that was entirely underground, in addition. But forget that: why does it exist at all? That never made any sense. The Authority sent everyone there? Because he's a big ol' bastard? Who's not really God anyway? This was a major problem with the series for me: the true reasons for the, you know, driving conflict of the story are never made very clear. It's just, "Hey, let's kill God!" And "You damn, dirty humans!" And...whatever. It's hard to understand the motivations on either side. By the time they had the big battle scene, I didn't even know why the hell anyone was fighting. I didn't know what the consequences of victory would be for either side.

Seriously, there's only one person named Roger in the entire world of the dead? Heh.

I don't really understand how the bomb created the abyss or whatever. It was so awesomely ka-boom-y it exploded in every single world?? And it punched a hole in reality? Well, I guess it also used the same energy Asriel did.

I don't buy that anyone would be all "I can't wait for my atoms to join the living universe! It will be so happy to obliviate myself!" Corollary: what the fuck was up with Lee Scoresby and Will's dad and the ghost army? The alethiometer said that when they left the world of the dead, they would become atoms. Period. Somehow, a bunch of ghosts are able to, what, hold themselves together and fight and shit? With no fucking explanation? And then they let themselves become atoms after they're done?

Another complaint: Asriel was lying when he said he wanted to destroy Dust? He really wanted to preserve it? Because killing God and warring against the angels MADE OF DUST are definitely what you want to do when you want to preserve Dust. Thanks for fucking around with the ending of the first book and half-ruining that great moment where Pan decides all the adults fear Dust so it must be good. Grr. STOP WITH THE LIES, PULLMAN.

Similarly: Mrs. Coulter WTF? It's like she became a totally different character in the third book. She became like Sloane and Lionel Luthor, where she flips back and forth between good and bad so much you stop caring because it can't make any sense after a while. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer...is no.

Asriel and Mrs. Coulter take down Metatron all by themselves, and the Authority is LITERALLY BLOWN AWAY?? That's it? This is the big climax the series has been leading up to? Will lets this old guy out of his crystal cage and kills God by accident? Are you saying a regular instrument would not have cut through that cage, because otherwise I'm not seeing how Asriel would have required the subtle knife to win. There was this huge battle for the fate of all possible worlds, and it sort of just gets...deflated.

And then Mary Malone saves the world with marzipan because Will and Lyra, at age twelve, have a disturbingly hot makeout session that preserves Dust. I...what?

Now, I really liked their developing kiddie lurve, the way Pullman described it as each one noticing things about the other and sharing expressions and feelings. But...they're twelve. Even when Mary was telling her story about being twelve and kissing this guy, it didn't seem right. Kissing is not that hot at twelve! You're barely hormonal! When it became clear Will and Lyra were supposed to be Adam and Eve, I wondered how that would work out since they were, you know, twelve. Yet, besides some vague prophecy, it's never clear why, exactly, it's so important for Will and Lyra, specifically, to make out. Why that solves the Dust problem. And then later they stroke each other's dæmons and "lay together" IF YOU KNOW WHAT PULLMAN MEANS. It's all very icky.

And then there's the very tragic ending that sort of blindsides the happy couple. Because it's extremely important for every single window ever to be closed...but, hey, maybe you can give back enough to keep one window open: you know, the BIGGEST WINDOW OF THEM ALL. *headTARDIS* Look, I actually kind of like the idea of having to tell the harpies true stories so that they will guide you through the world of dead, to make sure you had a life worth living, and coming out into the beautiful world of the mulefa (who are awesome, incidentally) to atomize. Except, with the Authority dead, why is the world of the dead even around? And what do the angels have to do now? Can't they go around closing windows when they're bored? Why don't you just evacuate Cittàgazze and then create all the Specters you want? Surely, there was another way, another option. And the revelation that cutting windows creates Specters makes you look at all the windows Will cut before in a bad light. (So much of the third book seems to retroactively make the other two books less awesome, undoing the work of the second.)

I'm not sure whether I like the idea that in our world, dæmons are actually there but unseen because that makes me think of situtations like the guy who hung onto Lee Scoresby's balloon, and if you did that in our world and your dæmon was, like, a rhinoceros, you'd be kind of fucked. And I would buy it as an extra bit of awesome for Mary Malone, but then Serafina (who is also a pretty cool character) says that people won't see Will's dæmon either, which GAH. His dæmon physically manifested! It was just like Lyra's! And Pan was quite visible when she was outside of her own world. Why wouldn't anyone see Will's dæmon? Will saw Sir Charles Lathrom's/Lord Boreal's snake. In the first two books, it really feels like Pullman knows exactly where he's going and what's going to happen, and then you seriously doubt it in the third book. It's unfortunate.

Finally, I loved Dust and all the different explanations and manifestations in the various worlds, but I never really understood what the hell it was or what it was for or where it came from. It seems like the angels Dusted the humans thirty-three thousand years ago, but they're made of Dust? Which is really just particles of consciousness? Fairly secular particles of consciousness? Maybe the movies can get away with this after all.

Despite my problems with the third book, I liked the series overall for the generally rollicking story and the meld of sci-fi and fantasy with doses of theology. It had a bunch of neat ideas and cool moments. I suppose there was proportionally more awesome than lack of awesome (and/or negative awesome).


This is some buffering text for your eye to focus on, as you examine this post. Look here and not above, for above there are spoilers, and you would not want to read them, now would you? You would be spoiled! Your enjoyment would be ruined! How sad that would be for you. You might start crying. You might jump in a river. You might do something you may later regret, like sleep with your teacher. These are all documented side effects of being spoiled, and I don't want you to go through that. You should have the freedom to scroll. Scroll, dear reader, scroll to your heart's content and read only these darkened words.
Tags: books, harry potter, pimpings
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