The Subtle Knife and
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (Books 2 and 3 of the His Dark Materials Trilogy)
After finishing The Golden Compass (or, Northern Lights in Europe) I wanted to wait to see the film before continuing on in the books. But I heard the film was a bit unfortunate, so I never got around to seeing it. So, thus, during last week’s beach vacation, I knocked out the last two books in the trilogy.
I have to say I enjoyed the final two more than the first, which is not to knock Compass. The second two moved along better, with action and adventure and really wild things. Regardless of how good (or bad) the first film is, I would still love to see the last two adapted, because there’s a heck of a lot of exciting stuff to put on the screen.
I very much enjoyed Pullman’s inversion of Paradise Lost, not because of any antipathy to the Christian religion, but because it’s always good fun to flip the convention of tradition. I would have enjoyed an inversion or re-imagining of the Greek/Norse mythology just as well (Gaiman’s American Gods, for instance, or Adams’ The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul come to mind amongst many others).
While I thought there were a moment or two of weakness in the writing quality, I think by and large Pullman’s technique is superior to other fantasy epic writers, and here I’m thinking of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, possibly even J.K. Rowling. I’m not sure I can authoritatively say why, but my best guess is effective use of Show Don’t Tell.
A few words on the title of the first book… I mentioned that I preferred The Golden Compass to Northern Lights as a title, and given the titles of the next two books, it just makes better sense. The Compass, the Knife, and the Spyglass are each plot-significant handheld objects introduced in each of their respective books, and make for a nicer “title rhythm” for the trilogy.
Oddly enough, The Golden Compass was a misunderstanding… Wikipedia entry:
Pullman earlier proposed to name the series The Golden Compasses. This term also appears in the poem Paradise Lost, where it poetically refers to the [drafting] compasses with which God shaped the world, an idea depicted in William Blake’s painting The Ancient of Days. Due to confusion with the other common meaning of compass (the navigational instrument) this phrase in the singular became the title of the American edition of Northern Lights (the book prominently features a device that one might label a “golden compass”1).
A few words on “atheist”2 themes… I had heard that the book was more anti-dogma than anti-belief, and quite honestly, I’m not sure whether this trilogy can be classified in such a way. It’s a speculative fiction novel, a huge “What if?” It’s got Angels, and God, and (a) Church… and they’re certainly the Bad Guys. But this series wouldn’t convince anyone to be a atheist, or even agnostic. It’s not an allegory; It’s just taking some existing traditional characters and turning their story on its head.
But, were I a believer, I’d have a tough time overlooking God as Bad Guy, even for the sake of a good story.
1 And I believe actually described as such in the book.
2 Can it be an Atheist novel if God is a character?