Oct 12, 2007

His Dark Material Girl

The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman

This is the first novel in the fantasy series with the ominous-sounding name, "His Dark Materials." The series is fairly well thought-of and this volume is "soon to be a Major Motion Picture" with the star power of Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, and Sam Elliot (who is breaking out of his typecast mold and playing a gruff but heroic Texan).

Before discussing this volume, I should point out that this series has already broken the Three-Book Barrier. The TBB, in case you're wondering, is something that I just made up to fill space. But that doesn't make it any less important!

The TBB refers to the number of volumes beyond which a fantasy series begins to falter under its own weight. This is, of course, due to The Lord of the Rings. (Yes, I know that LotR is more like six books crammed into three volumes, but did you know that Tolkien originally wanted the whole thing sold as a single volume? Liar.)

Any fantasy series that exceeds three volumes asserts by its very length that it has more to say than LotR, which is a pretty bold statement in the world of fantasy. While a trilogy is able to stand on its own merits without necessarily being compared to LotR, the comparison is inevitable after that point. Almost invariably, when a series has gone beyond three books, it is on a downhill path:
  • Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea series was a fantastic trilogy ... until she added a fourth book.
  • Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's series was ... well, the first two books were pretty good. Maybe this isn't a great example.
  • Most readers will tell you that Robert Jordan should have kept the Wheel of Time series to a few volumes and that later books seemed bloated. (Now, of course, they'll have to suffer for the fact that he passed away before he could wrap up all the plot threads he'd spun out in the 11-volume series unless they want to head down the perilous road of posthumous publication).
  • The jury is still out on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. I personally think that book four was the weakest in the series (though still pretty good), and his rather slow progress on book five makes me wonder if we'll ever see the whole seven-volume series.

Of course, there are exceptions. Frank Herbert's Dune series is well-regarded (though the posthumous efforts of his son and other authors are decidedly less-so), for example.

Anyway. Where was I?

Oh, yeah. The Golden Compass.

Originally titled Northern Lights, this book was renamed by the publisher of the North American edition solely based on the compass-like device depicted on the cover art. This goes down as possibly the only fantasy novel renaming stupider than that inflicted on Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (though somewhat less insulting to Americans).

The book follows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua, an orphan girl who lives at Jordan College in Oxford. Her parent's fate is initially something of an enigma, though moreso to Lyra than to the adults who seem to know an awful lot about her.

An epidemic of disappearing children touches 11-year-old Lyra's life when it claims two boys -- a friend and a rival. Lyra is taken away from Jordan before she can find out much about the disappearances, however, and placed in the care of the sinister and mysterious Mrs. Coulter.

Note: Since the novel was written in 1995, years before her rise to infamy, we can be reasonably confident that there is nothing in this book implying that conservative hate-monger Anne Coulter is a malevolent bitch queen who would stop at nothing to further her own agenda. The fact that she is exactly that is entirely beside the point.

Lyra soon discovers that Mrs. Coulter is not a very nice person and she runs away, carrying with her the eponymous golden compass, given to her by the head of Jordan college just before she left for Mrs. Coulter's care, which is actually a neat device called an "aleithiometer," the purpose of which is initially somewhat mysterious.

What follows is a fairly epic journey into the far north in search of the missing children. Lyra is joined by several colorful characters, including a Texan aeronaut, several "gyptians" of noble character, and a badass polar bear who, like Lyra, has a somewhat mysterious past (though in his case, he knows his own past very well, and any reader paying even the slightest attention can figure it out and predict a good portion of the rest of the book from the moment he's introduced.)

I read this book because the trailers for the upcoming movie looked interesting and, really, it's a decent fantasy novel, if a bit "young adult" in tone. I'd say it's somewhat above the Harry Potter level of drama, but it lacks a bit of the grab power of that series (despite a considerably more original and complex story). Still, despite the fact that it ends on what is basically a cliffhanger, and that the other books are available in my local book store, I'm not really rushing out to buy and read them.

The cliffhanger ending might just sink the movie, as well, particularly since they don't seem to be marketing it as "first in a series." That's asking for trouble, in my opinion, because there are few things more irritating than a movie that ends in an unexpected cliffhanger with no solid promise of a follow-up.

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