His Dark Materials

Recommendation: It would definitely be on my list of suggested fantasy/sci-fi

Read with: It is a kids book, but fuck it

Where to read: Holidays, beach, middle of a Catholic Church…live a little

In brief: What the Chronicles of Narnia does for Christianity, His Dark Materials does for the anti-religious (not necessarily atheistic, please note), although Pullman writes for an older audience and generally better. They’re a bit of a mess, but it’s a fun mess.


This is another reread of a childhood staple prompted by a recent TV series (which, despite featuring a frankly insufficient amount of James McAvoy, was still infinitely better than that silly movie). Northern Lights never made it onto the same reread list as Tolkien, Rowling or Eddings so it has been a long time since I last picked it up.

I’m too lazy to write different reviews for each instalment in the trilogy but they do warrant consideration separately because a) they are actually quite different tonally and b) the quality varies wildly.

Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) was and is my favourite and, for my money, hands down the best of the three – the world is richly drawn and compelling, the characters are interesting, the armoured bears are cool and what child wouldn’t want a daemon. It also has the advantage of a tight, linear plot and a couple of great set-pieces.

 The second and third books are, however, as deeply weird as they ever were, mostly because the pacing is all over the damn place. I’d forgotten just how little of consequence actually happens in The Subtle Knife. I mean sure, a bunch of new characters are introduced and we get the rundown on Lord Asriel’s rebellion against the Authority but it is a good example of why departing from the typical three (or five) act structure is risky. It’s not terrible by any means but I suspect I would have been more irritated by the complete lack of narrative shape had I been reading in hard copy rather than a one-volume e-book version. As it stands, I read straight through the end of The Subtle Knife and into the beginning of The Amber Spyglass without really registering what I’d done.

A couple of chapters into The Amber Spyglass and the pace has changed from meandering to positively manic. There are random characters, new universes, heavy-handed religious allegory and key plot points flying around bloody everywhere and it is a testament to Pullman’s skill that it still makes sense (broadly speaking) as a story. As an reading experience, I would liken it to being repeatedly dunked.

Northern Lights hooks you in unfairly well considering the quality of the sequels but it’s still a solid read. I can think of many series less worth your time.

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