Review: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Northern Lights CoverHis Dark Materials is children’s fantasy trilogy written by Philip Pullman, consisting of the novels Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000). This trilogy tells the coming of age story of Lyra Belacqua, who goes on fantastic adventures across the world investigating Dust. The series is both highly popular, and has won numerous awards. The first book in a series trilogy, The Book of Dust, was published just a couple of months ago.

I got into this series quite late, reading the first book seven or so years after the last book had come out (in fact, soon after the movie had come out, and which I had seen the posters of everywhere). Despite that, the series quickly became (and has remained since) one of my all time favourite series. I have waited eagerly for the sequel trilogy to finally arrive, and now that I have time away from university during Christmas break, I’ll finally be able to dive in to it. But before that, I thought I would revisit His Dark Materials here first.

The Subtle Knife Cover

The first thing that struck me about this series is the writing. The writing is absolutely beautiful, and among the best that I have ever read. More than once I have taken out the first book to just read just a couple pages of to get a taste of the language again, only to find myself re-reading the whole trilogy because the writing is so good I can’t put it down anymore. It is that good. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what it is about the writing that works so well for me, especially because at this point (though I got into the series quite late, it has been ten years now) it’s impossible to view the writing objectively. But the sense that I always get from the writing is that it flows like silk, and that the narrator can be trusted completely not to disappoint you with the story.

The second element of the story that I would like to touch on is the fantasy world. Specifically, the concept of the daemons, a shape-shifting animal familiar which accompanies each person. This concept is, of course, wonderfully satisfying (who hasn’t dreamed of having a similar being to them), but the execution of it here is fantastic: not only is the relationship between Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, fleshed out in a wonderfully realistic way, that relationship between person and daemon becomes one of the driving forces behind the whole narrative for the series.

The Amber Spyglass Cover

Which brings us to the characters specifically. This trilogy features absolutely unforgettable characters (such as Iorek, the armoured bear), and each character is characterised exquisitely. The absolute best example of this is Lyra herself, who has a wonderfully strong personality. Her characterisation at the beginning of the series feels like very accurate to her age, and her maturing through the series is done realistically and meaningfully.

At this point I realise that this review is basically me just gushing about how good this series is, so I’ll keep this paragraph about the plot as short as possible by just saying that it is wonderfully exciting, and the escalation between novels works beautifully.

Now, to address the controversy surrounding this trilogy. These books have been challenged for their portrayal of the Christian Church. And it is true that the books produce a strong argument against such establishments, and that it doesn’t hold back its punches while doing so. At the same time, however, I think that, even if you don’t agree with all of Pullman’s arguments, from a reviewer’s point of view you have to admire the skill with which Pullman makes them. Moreover, even if you don’t agree who the target of Pullman’s arguments are, you have to appreciate the values which Pullman advocates for. This was certainly the case for me when I first read the books: at the time, I couldn’t agree with Pullman’s arguments, but I loved the series nonetheless. Moreover, I appreciated the way in which these novels gave me food for thought concerning the topics it discusses, something which I always find highly valuable. That has been one of the reasons these novels have stayed with me for so long–while I was figuring out who I was during my teenage years, these novels were absolutely pivotal, and I changed much as a result of the conversations I had with these books.


So, in the end, I cannot recommend these books highly enough. This is a perfect opportunity to get into the series, no matter your age, seeing as there are finally more books coming out to continue the story. For those who are considering getting into the story, I would strongly advise against the US edition of The Amber Spyglass, which bafflingly censors out a key passage in the latter half of the story.

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