On a knife’s edge

The cover of the book The Subtle Knife.

Image via Wikipedia

As much as I liked the first book in Mr. Phillip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy, I can’t honestly say I have the same enthusiasm for the second book.

In the Subtle Knife, we pick up Lyra Silvertongue‘s story almost immediately after the events of the first book (see my review here).  But (and this is a big butt for me) we are initially introduced to an entirely new character: William Parry.

Will is a very disturbed youngster.  After giving his deranged mother away to his piano teacher and killing an intruder, he goes off on a quest to find his father, slipping into another world and into Lyra’s path.

Just that bit alone gave me pause.  It was like…are you serious?  This kid does all this himself?  And he does so with the focus of a psychopath?

Okay.  I’ll completely suspend any belief, and continue reading.  I mean, I did so for Lyra’s story, why not for Will?

Well…it was easy to drop into Lyra’s world because I felt the author did a wonderful job of world building and immersing us in Lyra’s story.  In the first book, we were introduced to her world gradually and since it was new to us, the idea of daemons, magic, and talking animals just passed right on through the bullshit sensors.

But, in The Subtle Knife, I could never cast off the sense that I just couldn’t buy this story.  What really got me was how Lyra changed around Will.  I won’t go into the feminist issues here, but suffice to say that it got my goat.  Then there was this:

‘I can see people behind us,’ she (a witch) said. ‘They’re a long way back, but they’re moving quickly.  Shall I go closer and look?’
‘Yes, do,’ said Lyra, ‘but fly low, and hide, and don’t let them see you.’

WTF?  The dialogue above is between Lyra and a witch.  A centuries old witch.  A witch that has tailed and guarded Lyra’s skinny ass for the past few chapters.  And now this little girl is telling the witch how to stay safe?  I mean, yeah, the witch ends up getting caught by Lyra’s mother, but the exchange just didn’t sit right with me.

And neither does the premise of the book.

In The Subtle Knife, we discover what it is Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel,  is up to: he’s out to destroy God.

Wow.  I mean, just writing that sent chills up my spine and I, yet again, thought, “About bloody time someone did.”  It’s like, yes, kill the god!  But…wait…

Why kill God?  He hasn’t done anything to anyone.  He’s not the bad guy.  Mrs. Coulter is bad.  The whole religious order folks are bad.  Most of the adults are bad, but God?  He hasn’t done anything to anyone.  The very notion of killing a god kind of admits that there is one, now doesn’t it?

All this, along with demons (ghasts) and angels thrown in the mix, has me just a little worried about where the story is going.  And there’s another issue I have with the book, but I don’t want to spoil a piece of crucial information that is revealed at the end.   Suffice to say, I didn’t like the direction that this book veers, but I am curious to see how Mr. Pullman resolves all the issues.

I gave this three out of five stars over on GoodReads.

Happy Reading. :)


The past year has seen a lot of change in the world.  And I haven’t kept up with much of it.  Oh, well.  Can’t win ’em all, can ya?  What I do hope for the coming year is that I read more, and tell you all about what I read.  To that end, I’m setting a reading goal for 2012: 24 books.  That’s a book every two weeks.

Here’s the line up for the first quarter of the year:

  1. The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman
  2. The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman
  3. A Storm Hits Valparaiso by David Gaughran
  4. Dawntheif by James Barclay
  5. Shadow’s Lure by Jon Sprunk
  6. 1491 by Charles C. Mann

We’ll see how well I keep to my new schedule.  If you would like to read along and discuss the books as I post my reviews, please do!  Or, feel free to suggest books for the list.  Thanks for reading, and have a Happy New Year.


Mr. Pullman in the News

Saving libraries no less…


Too bad the buggers have to make it political.

He suggested that the writers’ highly successful campaign to keep libraries open meant that services for the elderly and disabled would be forced to bear the brunt of the cuts.

And he said it was “clear” that many of those who fought for the libraries to be saved had “little understanding” of social care.

Hard times, folks.  I suppose something has got to give.

Dark Intentions

Several shots from the film's deleted ending a...

Image via Wikipedia - not in the movie

I wanted to post about the movie The Golden Compass separate from the book.  As some of you may be aware of, The Golden Compass came out in 2007.  I remember watching it, and enjoying it.  However, if you asked me a month ago to tell you what it was about, I probably couldn’t have done that.  All I really remember is the opening scene and the wonderful critters.  I might have recommended it, but maybe not.  It hadn’t left a strong impression on me one way or the other.

As you may have presumed, I did not read the book before watching the film.  Though I wasn’t the target audience, I liked the movie trailer because:

  1. It had Daniel Craig in it,
  2. It looked like it would be an awesome fantasy story with a spunky little girl instead of an emo boy, and
  3. It had Daniel Craig in it. :o

Now that you know how shallow I am, let’s move on…

The Golden Compass was directed by Chris Weitz.  Not a particularly stellar director, but adequate and experienced.  So, given the source material – an excellent story with an adventurous plot that would adapt well to the screen due to all the great visuals – what-the-freak happened?  Why wasn’t the film at least half as good as the book?  Though it did garner some awards for its visual effects, it just didn’t do all that well because it sucked.

I think it sucked for two reasons.

One is that they messed with the story.  They toned down all the anti-religious themes, and a rearranged stuff while leaving out the awesome ending of Lyra following her father into another world (sorry about the spoiler).  Apparently, the original script had adhered to the novel quite well, but due to studio constraints it was changed (read: trying to make it work for the religious-right American market).

The second is a bunch of religious folks got on their soap boxes and told anyone who would listen that the film was anti-religious or was trying to destroy Narnia.  Which, to be fair, is sort of true.

In Pullman’s novel, the sentiment that a religious order controls and is doing horrendous things in the name of morality is quite clear, but that theme is discovered as you read about Lyra’s story.  A young reader is lead to think on their own and to question an all-knowing authority.  No where does the author or any of his characters out right say they are anti-religious. The point of the book isn’t to “preach” anti-religion, but rather to allow a reader to look at religion from a more balanced viewpoint.

If the film had been allowed to stick closer to the events and dialogue in the book, I think it would have been better for it.  As it is, the film’s story doesn’t make sense and we are simply left watching a puppet go through the motions of finding her father, saving the kids, and then…  Well, then nothing.

It is too bad that the film did not realize the grand adventure painted in the book, because now we’ll never get to see the rest of Lyra’s story.  But!  No worries, you can read it in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, and that’s even better.

Happy Reading. :)

The Dark Creator

Prior to getting to Phillip Pullman‘s wonderful book, allow me to lay some ground rules.  As this is the first of many book reviews, I thought it would be a good idea to clarify what I want to do here.

First and foremost, I’d like to present the book in its purest form; story for the story’s sake.  I will refrain from interjecting any interpretation.

Second, I plan to explore the author’s background and their motives for writing what they did.  Of course, one can never know exactly what an author planned, because many times, they do not know.  Unless, of course, they say or write something that says, “I wrote this with an aim to…”.

Writing is an art form.  A form that requires participation from both the writer and reader.  Therefore, any interpretation of mine on the author’s part is entirely my opinion and pure conjecture.

Third and lastly, I will explore my reaction, as an atheist, to the text.

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass (Kindle Edition)

Book Review: The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

The Story

Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 910–92

The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights everywhere else in the world) is a story about a girl named Lyra Belacqua that earns the name Silvertongue.

Lyra’s story begins at Oxford’s Jordon College where she inadvertently witnesses what she thinks is a crime against her uncle, but turns out to be so much more.  She is soon wading in the depths of a world-spanning mystery to help save kidnapped children, her estranged father, and ultimately the universe (in the next two books, I imagine).

Lyra’s world is familiar to ours, or rather, 19th century England, but fundamentally different.  One of the most striking differences are dæmons.  Dæmons are soul-like creatures.  Every human has one, except those that have had their dæmons wretched from them.  And that’s exactly why Lyra must save the kidnapped children.  Because someone, someone unimaginably close to Lyra, is cutting children’s souls apart.  On her journey to save those children, Lyra encounters natural wonders (the northern lights), witches, bears, and a betrayal so deep, it sends her to another world.

The story is told primarily from Lyra’s point of view.  Through talks between herself and her dæmon, we learn to love and respect this spunky, intelligent girl as she discovers a world full of sin and politics.  I recommend this book to every child who loves adventure, no matter their age.  I wholeheartedly give this book five HUGE stars.

The Author

Phillip Pullman is a writer who happens to be a humanist.  He has written over 20 books, primarily for children, though his works are enjoyed by all ages.  His Dark Material trilogy, including The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, were printed in 1995, 1997, and 2000 (respectively).

Born in Norwich, he grew up in England, Zimbabwe, and Australia.  He earned his teaching credentials at Exeter College, Oxford.  He is an outspoken atheist.  One of his latest book, titled The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate U.S.; 1 edition, May 4, 2010), re-tells the life of Jesus Christ with an interesting twist – they’re twin brothers.


This book is spectacularly written and crafted.  Mr. Pullman is a master of imagery, easily evoking life at university, river bogs, London, palaces, sea travel, and a snow bound realm filled with an amazing race of bears and other dark creatures.  Through all this, he expertly weaves Lyra’s story as she travels with the gyptians, her friend Iorek Byrnison, and then ultimately with only her dæmon.  Mr. Pullman also delves head-first into some major topics: religion influencing politics, religion influencing free thinking, free will, choice, destiny, intentions, original sin, and the existence of a god itself.

But…but it en’t true, is it?  Not true like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true?  There wasn’t really an Adam and Eve?”

Though Mr. Pullman takes pains on his own website and in interviews to downplay the power of this words, ultimately his prose and the ideas he explores and the conclusions his characters make, and, most importantly, the way the author chooses good over evil, it’s hard not to conclude that his books have a decidedly anti-religious and even an anti-god sentiment.

How refreshing to find in a children’s book!  I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to read young Lyra utter the words quoted above.  My. Pullman focuses the story on the human relationships, and how they are wrong or right; whether they are built upon fear and greed, or love and respect, and how those relationships shape the lives of his characters and ultimately the fate of the world.  He leaves nothing to an old and dusty god.

I plan to read the entire trilogy, and will post my review of the entire set sometime in the future.  Up next: Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth.