There are some books I won’t read just because other people make such a big deal out of them. For some reason, the popularity of the thing drives me away. I realize it’s a stubborn and elitist thing to do, but sometimes I can’t help it. Television shows are like this with me, too. For example, to this day I’ve never watched an episode of Seinfeld all the way though, no matter how many people tell me how funny it is. And even though I was one of the biggest SportsNight fans around, I avoided the creator’s new show, The West Wing, like the plague, even as it piled on award after award.
When it comes to books, Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy were the garlic to my Dracula. I got tired of people telling me how much I would enjoy it and just avoided the thing altogether. Again, it’s the elitist in me. But ever since I came to work in a library, I realized very quickly I had to get over that particular hump, suck it up, and read the damn thing.
And, like everyone else predicted, I’m glad I did. The Golden Compass, the first book in the trilogy, is a worthy successor to high-fantasy book like Lewis’ Narnia books or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. Pullman creates a fully-realized fantasy world as his setting – not the generic swords-and-sorcery, Dungeons-and-Dragons-lite world that you find in many modern fantasies. This world is different in fundamental ways – almost alien – and yet it becomes familiar and comfortable to us.
The book has a plucky young girl as the main character, different from other fantasy heroines in that her most valuable skill is not to wield magic or become a master with weapons. No, her main skill is lying to others. It’s refreshing, really, to have a hero in a fantasy novel do something so… ordinary. It works.
The novel is a bit slow to get started but the plot kicks into gear quickly enough. Pullman writes best when his characters are in the thick of battle, and heroes and villains are clashing with the fate of the world in the balance. Like the best fantasy novels, simple quests evolve into titanic things, and the mother of all cliffangers leads us into the second book in the series.
Which, incidentally, I won’t be avoiding this time.