I read the Golden Compass and accompanying books when I was in high school. I found the first one interesting, the second one a bit odd, and the third one terrible. I went away from the trilogy wondering why everyone thought it was amazing.
Fast forward six years. I work in a games company and hang out with people who actually read. One night we got to discussing why I love ‘kids’ books and they assumed I must love the His Dark Materials trilogy. I revealed that I didn’t like it. In actual fact, I was apathetic at that point. I didn’t remember much about it except that it left a bad taste in my mouth when I finished it. They were shocked. They all felt it was a fabulous trilogy, ground breaking etc etc etc.
I began to wonder, had my teenage self miss-judged the series? Was I too self-involved, or uneducated in religious symbolism and history to understand these so-called amazing books? I wasn’t sure. I hardly ever change my opinion on a book, I know what I like and what I don’t like, sometimes I can even articulate why.
So, I decided that with the movie coming out shortly, it was time to reread the trilogy and see if I was incorrect in my first impression. Well…I wasn’t. I still can’t stand them.
The first book starts out well enough, the story is interesting, the characters somewhat compelling. I got annoyed at his bizarre choice to rename common things from our world in Lyra’s just to make it more fantastical. Like he says to himself, “Hmmmmm, how do I create a believable fantasy world with the least amount of effort? I know, I’ll take random words and find different root words for them. It’ll make me look really clever and like I put a lot of effort into it.” This concept irritated me because it threw me out of the story. I would try and imagine the scene in my head only to get stuck on a word and go, “Wait, what the hell is anbaric? Is it gas, electric, candle?” and then have to reread the passage because I’d lost the flow.
But the first book isn’t that bad, all things considered. It holds together pretty well as long as he doesn’t talk about Dust. It’s almost as if even he can’t decide what the hell Dust is.
The second book just isn’t really that memorable. You get through it quickly because you know you need to. Will is so flat as a character and I really just didn’t care about him. It’s also in this book where everyone starts acting more like super heroes than people. The characters are presented as normal in the first book, but suddenly some of them (namely Mrs Coulter) can now do whatever they want, without proper explanation.
The third book is the worst by far. It’s long and blustery and mostly pointless. More and more the characters have these insane abilities and knowledge of what they have to do, and considering this is mostly a war to get rid of God, they sure seemed blessed with powers to do so. But more on that later. My real gripe with the third one is the terrible editing. There’s a good three chapters about a stupid bomb that has nothing WHAT SO EVER to do with the main plot. You could rip those pages out and nothing would be lost. Nothing. What kind of editor did this man have? Next gripe is those weird mulefas. I mean, come on. It’s the same problem Star Wars books have, they create these absolutely mind blowing creatures that I can’t even begin to imagine so I’m stuck with this ugly horse/elephant/on roller skates in my head.
And can we stop being all “Oooooooh be one with the earth” crap? Yes, we get it, their world is perfectly fucking balanced. It’s so simplistically balanced they can explain it with elephant trunks! Not like our world where we can only begin to understand the causes and effects of the environment on larger scales and can’t comprehend it on small scale at all. Yeah, that’s a great piece of writing; let’s point out the flaws of humanity by making a metaphor that doesn’t work.
Finally, the ending of the third book just sucks. But, that’s not really a gripe with his writing so much as it made me regret reading the whole series because it’s such a downer. I’m not even one that has to have happy endings, but after all that bullshit you read through to get to the end and that’s it? Shit, I’d rather watch Old Yeller.
Now, about this whole religious controversy, everyone keeps saying it’s promoting atheism. Well, the definition of atheism is “the doctrine or belief that there is no God.” It seems to me that if they’re going to war with “The Authority” then in the terms that we have defined Atheism, the book isn’t promoting atheism because it states there is a God. The important point is Pullman is saying the God we’ve come to believe isn’t the creator, but that doesn’t mean he’s saying there isn’t one. So, get off his back and stop giving the Atheists a bad name.
As for whether or not Pullman is having a go at the Catholic church, well, considering he’s having a war on the one true God (which involves several religions, let’s not get self-obsessed here) then he’s really writing a book against all organized religions. So, everybody should be pissed off, not just the Catholics.
Personally, I don’t see why the church is paying any attention. Whatever his book is saying, it’s badly written and confusing so why pay it any heed? They’re just drawing more attention to it. I think their time is much better spent banning Harry Potter which is at least teaching children morals and that doing what is right isn’t easy. God wouldn’t want that now would he/she?