His Dark Materials:
1) The Golden Compass
2) The Subtle Knife
3) The Amber Spyglass
Written and Narrated by Phillip Pullman
and performed by a full cast.
Published by Listening Library
When the first book of His Dark Materials, The Golden Compass was made into a movie several friends of mine were excited at the prospect. I had not heard of the books, much less read them so my own sense of excitement was nonexistent, but they are my friends. So when they asked me to visit the movie website and help them develop their daemons, which, it turned out, were not Unix programs, I did so. It seemed like an interesting idea, but not interesting enough to get me to shell-out to see the movie. I still have not seen all of it – somehow something always comes up and I miss the beginning and get called away before the end. The bits around Oxford seemed incredibly mundane for such a lush fantasy, I thought, but maybe if I ever see the whole movie in sequence my opinion will change.
I also have not had the time to actually read the books, but I have listened to the audiobooks, so here goes…
I quite enjoyed The Golden Compass. While it took next to no time to figure out it was happening in a totally different world from ours, the few points of commonality gave me just enough of a handle on the world to come to grips with what the main character, Lyra, was dealing with. So in spite of the talking bears I mentioned up there in the title, I was ready to accept Lyra’s fantasy world as it was as each new facet was presented. I think Mister Pullman did an excellent job of presentation in that respect.
Where I had problems was in the following books of the trilogy. Book 2, The Subtle Knife starts out in a world far more similar to our Earth and follows an entirely new character, Will Parry. It does so without any real warning, so as the reader (or listener in this case) I found myself confused and slightly annoyed by the sudden change. I had expected to continue following Lyra so the switch bothered me.
Now I know changing the point of view is not an uncommon technique by writers, especially when going from one volume of a series to the next, but since The Golden Compass ended with Lyra travelling to another world, I was waiting a bit too impatiently to learn about that world and the delay did not sit well with me. My fault? Possibly. I never said I was right about this.
When I finally got over my frustration and confusion the story seemed to flow well enough, but I found myself wondering why Will found Lyra’s explanations and what to Will must have seemed like magical devices, such as the altheiometer, so sensible. I would have thought someone from such a different world would have questioned everything Lyra asserted as fact. He’s slightly doubtful at times, but… Oh well, it pushed the plot and I will admit that I hate when a character refuses to believe anything for an entire story until the very moment of truth when he or she finally realizes the magic is real and uses it… so maybe I’m just hard to please?
Maybe so, but I was annoyed at the sudden and unexpected changes I encountered. Annoying one’s readers is not generally a good idea for a writer even if some have made a career of it. So it took a while to settle back into the story and even then I was not entirely comfortable with the writing style. Lyra’s personality had, to me, seemed to change. Perhaps that was the change in point of view, but that was another adaptation I needed to make. I believe in character development, but it is usually best accomplished while the character is in view of the reader.
Then I finally got to the third volume. Now The Amber Spyglass won all sorts of awards, so I will admit that I am aware my criticisms are mine alone and your own mileage may vary. That said, I found that by the third book the situation was entirely too complex for me to completely enjoy. There were too many different lead characters running around and it became hard to follow when the point of view kept switching around between Lyra, Will and Dr. Mary Malone and some of the less important characters. I kept getting the feeling that Mister Pullman kept adding new worlds just for the sake of it.
I enjoy fully developed, rich fantasy worlds, but merely tossing out a lot of details in an almost kaleidoscopic manner, does not make an entire fantasy world (or multiverse in this case) hang together. I do not consider the multiverse of His Dark Materials to be particularly well-crafted when taken as a whole. Some of the worlds are fully developed and others important to the story – such as the world of the Mulefa – are, at best, two-dimensional.
Further, there were too many major characters in the books. Everyone seems to be larger than life in their own ways. That’s fine for the two kids, Lyra and Will, and also for Mary, and we expect that for villains like Mrs. Coulter and even Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel. Perhaps it was fair to give such status to the bear, Iorik Byrnison, and when taken individually I could say the same for some of the Gyptians, of Serrafina Pekkala, of Lee Scoresby and so on… But there comes a point in any story in which you have too many important characters. The number of such characters is not fixed, it depends on the story and how it is presented.
Another fault I found was that the author seemed to be uncertain whether he wanted the book to be some sort of religious allegory, a warning against environmental damage or a possible (albeit fantasy) discussion of the physics of dark matter (called “Dust” in this story). There was just too much going on and I did not find the conclusions to be particularly satisfying. I don’t need a happy ending to every story, but I do want a fully satisfying conclusion at the end of a series.
So, with apologies to Mister Pullman’s fans, while I did not dislike His Dark Materials, I did not consider it the masterwork so many others have. It was okay, but not great.
Listening to an author read his own work is a mixed bag. I seriously doubt anyone wants to hear me read my own books, for example. I am fully aware that I am not an actor and about the only thing I could be counted on would be to pronounce all the names correctly.
Phillip Pullman, however, does narrate his work well. However, since his voice is mixed with a full cast of actors, these recordings are something between true audiobooks and radio plays. Because of this, the recording is not a truly unabridged version, even though the recordings claim to be. All that’s missing are the he-said-she-saids, but while some might argue such verbiage is unnecessary, it does add something to the reading experience. Cutting out those words turns this from a reading into a theatrical performance. It certainly hampered my ability to judge the author’s writing style, since what I was listening to was at least half a play, but I did look up various promotional samples. The recording is close, maybe close enough, but not exactly like the original texts.
That aside, taken as a trilogy of plays, these recordings were quite listenable. If you’re a fan of the books you will probably enjoy these performances as well.
So to sum up. In spite of more established critical acclaim, I found the books to be interesting, but with a few flaws and inconsistencies that left me less than totally satisfied, but the recordings were well done and should please the fans of His Dark Materials.