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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase His Dark Materials

Title: His Dark Materials
Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: Novel
Written: (2000)
Length: 1243 pages
Availability: His Dark Materials Trilogy (box set) - US
His Dark Materials Trilogy (box set) - UK
His Dark Materials Trilogy (box set) - Canada
His Dark Materials - India
A la croisée des mondes - L'intégrale - France
Trilogie - Deutschland
Queste oscure materie - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B+ : (too) large-scale fantasy, with some impressive inventions and adventures

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
First Things . 5/2001 Daniel P. Moloney
The Hindu . 20/7/2002 Prema Srinivasan
National Review . 25/3/2002 Andrew Stuttaford
The NY Rev. of Books . 25/3/2004 Michael Chabon
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/1/2002 Margo Jefferson

  See also our review summaries for the individual volumes for reviews of the individual volumes: Northern Lights (US title: The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though all at least impressed by aspects of the books

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pullman has set himself an ambitious task, trying to tell a complex yet realistic tale about the death of God and the true nature and destiny of man. He has the talent to have pulled it off, but unfortunately, his atheism gets in the way. (...) The Amber Spyglass is not a success. There are moments of brilliant writing, but Pullman's imagination is not up to his ambitions, so that what should be the breathlessly anticipated climax is instead rather dull." - Daniel P. Moloney, First Things

  • "Philip Pullman has shown us, in the course of these three novels that human beings can, with courage and love, survive the nightmare of tragedy. Pullman is perhaps not just telling a story, but showing an entire world and explaining not a moral but a worldview for his young readers." - Prema Srinivasan, The Hindu

  • "In constructing this captivating, fascinating fantasy, Pullman has pillaged the past and looted from legend. He is a magpie of myth, an author whose work borrows from saga, folklore, and some delightfully obscure parts of the historical record, and, oh yes, he can write. (...) The Amber Spyglass is a book in which, despite some sporadically spectacular passages, any real sense of excitement is, quite literally, ground into Dust. Scattered over page after wearying page, this endlessly discussed "Dust" is the substance that represents consciousness in Pullman's universe, but it runs the risk of inducing unconsciousness in his youthful and, doubtless, exhausted readership. And there is, unfortunately, no escaping it. For there is Dust to be found in every nook and cranny of this wordy, wordy, wordy culmination of Pullman's three-volume morality play, which is, at its core, nothing less than an assault on the notion of Original Sin." - Andrew Stuttaford, National Review

  • "His prose has texture and flexibility, like excellent fabric. And he gives us so much. Suspense of course, but such degrees of pleasure, excitement (the excitement of meeting characters, not just adventurers) and grief." - Margo Jefferson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Pullman has looked around at this broken universe of ours, in its naturalistic tatters, and has indicated, like Satan pointing to the place on which Pandemonium will rise, the site of our truest contemporary narratives of the Fall: in the lives, in the bodies and souls, of our children." - Michael Chabon, The New York Review of Books
  • "His Dark Materials is a novel of electrifying power and splendor, deserving celebration, as violent as a fairy tale and as shocking as art must be." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post (29/10/2000)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

Note: see also the reviews of the individual titles: Northern Lights (US title: The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass
       His Dark Materials was published as a trilogy, in three separate volumes, but it really is only a single (though many faceted) story.
       One central character is Lyra Belacqua, a pre-pubescent girl with a great destiny (that she is not supposed to know about). In her world humans have daemons -- souls made visible, in a sense, that stay near their hosts (indeed, that can't stray far from them -- though that is one of the things put to a test in both the first and the final volume of the trilogy) and take on the form of an appropriate creature (able to shift shape when their hosts are young, the forms become fixed after they reach puberty).
       Great things are going on, immense conflicts brought to a head. Lord Asriel -- introduced as Lyra's uncle -- in particular has great ambitions, announcing that:
Human beings can't see anything without wanting to destroy it, Lyra. That's original sin. And I'm going to destroy it. Death is going to die.
       Lyra has at least one device able to help her in her quest (a quest whose very goal she isn't exactly certain of much of the time): an alethiometer that, when read and interpreted correctly, can answer questions posed of it, including about the future. (Pullman has a bit of trouble with this device, since she doesn't always consult it when she could: at one point near the very end he writes: " 'I'm going to ask the alethiometer,' Lyra said. 'That'll know ! I don't know why I didn't think of it before" -- something readers are left wondering over and over for much of the trilogy.)
       The other main character is Will Parry, who only appears on the scene in the second volume, The Subtle Knife. He comes from the world readers are familiar with. Will comes to be the bearer of the very special knife of the title, allowing windows to be cut between the many different worlds (realities/universe) in existence. But the knife and its remarkable properties turn out also to be quite a burden.
       The mysterious Dust is one of the mysteries to be plumbed in these volumes: tied together are also questions of good and evil, life and afterlife, purpose and duty. Grand themes, more or less grandly addressed. The Christian myth of the fall and original sin in particular is repudiated (and blamed for many of the world's woes), and the dominant church-organization that's involved in these proceeding isn't a very pleasant one.
       His Dark Materials is richly populated: important adult figures include Lord Asriel, Mrs.Coulter (a villain with just enough good (and maternal instincts) to confound all expectations -- as Lord Asriel says: "Whatever else she's done, she's never failed to surprise me"), and Dr. Mary Malone (a one-time nun and now a physicist from Will's world). There are the daemons and many other creatures: Iorek Byrnison, the king of the bears, a number of witches, angels, and less familiar creatures, some with remarkable powers (some of which seem a tad too convenient, and not many of which are fully explored). Arguably the book is overfull with characters of different types, with Pullman not lingering enough on some but rather breathlessly employing one after the other as it suits him (and not necessarily the story).
       A number of the adventures are very well-done, and the entire trilogy, despite its length, moves along at a good clip -- arguably in places not dwelling long enough on one matter or another (and certainly too often leaving characters waiting by the wayside). There's a larger concept here too, and Pullman's great ambition is also something of a burden to the story. There is almost too much here, and aspects can appear forced. Some of it is undermined by the sheer luck -- or rather coincidence -- that comes into play (or rather: to the rescue) far too often too. Pullman concludes the work in a nice way -- difficult choices must be made, but it is clear that there are no real alternatives -- but much leading up to that point isn't nearly as neatly done.
       The main conclusion -- "we have to build the republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is nowhere else" (which ultimately boils down to a denial of Christian notions of an afterlife) -- is quite well presented (and one certainly has to like what Pullman wreaks on Hell in making that point from yet another vantage point) -- though curiously there is in that also a denial of imagination implicit (and, to a certain extent, explicit) in that. The characters must act practically above all else: flights of fancy are not called for. Emotions, too, must be kept in check. Lyra is tellingly described as an unimaginative lass -- though she is a great liar (who is eventually also called upon to abandon her lies and embrace only truth, as only true stories are allowed to be redemptive here). There's considerable story-telling in the book (by the characters), but story-telling is a means but not an end. There are fantastical worlds throughout the book, but Pullman closes the windows to all of these, leaving them separate and distinct.

       His Dark Materials is a grand adventure-fantasy epic, with a theological-philosophical bent. There are good stories in it, though the overarching whole isn't entirely convincing (or always readily followed). Lyra and Will are certainly characters who, by the end, readers care for: essentially orphans (their parents being -- with occasional exceptions -- either absent or stifling) who must carry great burdens -- and eventually manage to do so. There is too little character development in the first two volumes -- and then an attempt at too much in the last -- but the conclusion, at least for these two (and Mary Malone) is a satisfying one.
       The trilogy consistently offers the unexpected -- too often, arguably, in that Pullman simply introduces too much (without fully developing some of it). It can't live up to all its ambitions, but it does to many of them and it is an enjoyable (and often touching, in all respects) read.

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His Dark Materials: Reviews: Philip Pullman: Other books by Philip Pullman under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Philip Pullman was born in 1946. He has written numerous highly acclaimed and prize-winning books, mainly for younger readers.

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