Book Beat February 10 2001

J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman are both English, yet the difference between their books is what separates the young adults from the children. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels entertain all ages, with comforting whimsy compensating for the ominous aspects. Young readers should tread more cautiously into Pullman’s domain, which is suffused with more darkness and ambiguity — not to mention better descriptive prose. The only things that really distinguish Pullman’s books from more mature fantasy novels are the youth of the protagonists and the accessibility of the writing style.
Pullman’s latest book, The Amber Spyglass, culminates an engrossing trilogy begun with The Golden Compass and continued in The Subtle Knife. The heroes, Lyra and Will, are children at the cusp of adolescence, brought together from Earths that are parallel but strangely connected. Will comes from our world, while Lyra comes from a more Dickensian dimension where human souls take physical shape as talking animals, called “daemons” (Pullman’s most appealing concept).
Lyra and Will encounter flying witches, Lilliputian spies, soul-draining specters and an armored bear named Iorek Byrnison, who may resemble an ursine star of a Coca-Cola ad but is the trilogy’s least cuddly and most dangerously compelling role. The two children represent the only hope for order in a convoluted war between mortals and supernaturals, which could mean the overthrow of heaven itself.
The trilogy’s title, His Dark Materials, comes from a line in “Paradise Lost,” and theological issues clearly fascinate the author, who blends the hierarchy of the Christian afterlife with the Buddhist concepts of nirvana. Among the warring factions are bona fide angels, with powers portrayed with annoying inconsistency. More potentially disturbing, parents here tend to be ineffectual at best, power-crazed and vicious at worst.
But The Amber Spyglass and its predecessors make up a highly original epic of remarkable scope, with thrillingly imaginative action scenes and a surprisingly sincere appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. The novel includes alien encounters, dizzying battles and a journey to the land of the dead, yet the most lingering aspects are lyrical descriptions of nature and, at the end, a depiction of true love tender and credible enough to dispel Pullman’s darkest material.