Friday, March 6, 2009

Guest LitRec: Moon.Witches on His Dark Materials

In making my last recommendation I made a few, possibly foolish, assumptions. I assumed that anybody interested in reading recommendations for YA literature will have already read certain books. It has recently come to my attention that this may not be the case. So, this time I’m going to cover my two favourite sets of books ever, not just in YA books, but in all of bookdom.

The first one I’m going to cover very briefly. I assure you, you’ve heard of it and even if you haven’t read it (you are dead to me) you will have no problem finding information on it and on why you should love it. I am, of course, speaking of Harry Potter. Does it need a summary or an introduction? I don’t think so, because if you don’t know by now, then you don’t know by choice and I will respect that choice...except, you’re still dead to me. I will plan the funeral and will play The Phoenix Lament after the burial.

Yes, I just made a bad Harry Potter nerd pun. That’s how much I love it.

What I will say about the experience of reading Harry Potter is that it was magical in a way only a good book can be. My life is altered for the reading of it and I will never forget the moment it entered my life or the moment I finished reading the last book. One took place in my living room while watching day time television, the other in a Dairy Queen. Lastly, I just wanted to say, that if there are others out there who enjoy the reading of canon fic (not the snermione-crack, that is pushed around here) contact me and we can share in the canon-crack love.

Admin Note: All references to "Snermione Crack" are of moon.witche's opinions only. We at TLYDF apologize -- no worries. Smellyia shall wear her down.

The rest of this rec I wanted to devote to the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. And to truly tell you why I love these three books so much, I must start at the end. I think it’s in the second last chapter of The Amber Spyglass, possibly the third to the last chapter. Two characters stand inches apart and talk to each other. Their speech includes atoms, and physics, and death, and travelling through different worlds. And is the most tragically romantic thing I have ever read and I weep every time I read it. I can pick this book up in a book store flip to that page, not being immersed in the story at all, and tears will form and I will be sad for some time.

It’s almost kind of pathetic, except the books totally deserve it.

Back to the beginning. The first book, The Golden Compass (or, Northern Lights in the UK) is about a wild, courageous, loyal, young girl who is seduced away from her simple life in the colleges of Oxford, and drawn into the world of politics and religion, while desperately trying to rescue a friend. What is Dust and what is this child’s connection to it?

This book takes place in a world that is vastly different from our own but still manages to be hauntingly familiar. The most notable difference is the physical representation of a person’s soul. In Lyra’s (the main character) world, a person’s soul exists outside of themselves in the form of an animal. An animal that can talk and feel and think its own thoughts, which they call a daemon.

Some of you may have seen the movie based on this book and while they did nail a few things (the characterization of Lyra being my favourite). They really let the heart and soul of the book die by making it about the adventure and not about the characters, their relationships and their different understandings of the world. The two biggest things, in my opinion, that suffered was a person’s relationship with their daemon, and Lyra’s relationship with Mrs. Coulter.

A daemon isn’t a pet or a friend or a family member: a daemon is a part of you, an integral part. Through the journey Lyra takes in the story, it comes to her attention that people are experimenting in “intercision,” the act of separating a person from their daemon. The terror and disgust that is felt by everyone at this prospect is palpable on the page. People who have suffered this terrible act who are reunited with their daemon after the procedure become passionless zombies for the rest of their lives. They do not care about anything and are as unfeeling as robots. People who are not reunited with their daemons become desperate and wild. They want only one thing and cannot think or understand anything else. Lyra discovers a poor boy in this condition in the book and he dies the next morning. It isn’t something to be taken lightly.

The consequences of severing it are paramount to the plot. The fact that people become passionless is the point of the experiments, as funded by the ruling power in Lyra’s world, the Magisterium.

Mrs. Coulter is one of three main adult women seen in this book. Each woman has a different facet of femininity associated with her (Ma Costa is the mother figure, and Serafina Pekkala the feminist). Mrs. Coulter is definately the manipulator. She is power hungry and ambitious and she is the first woman Lyra meets who is not a servant or a scholar. She is beautiful and elegant and Lyra is immediately drawn to her and the way she can control men. What is fascinating about this relationship is how it changes and grows, how these two completely different people both admire and hate one another. The meeting of innocence and experience is not ever visually shown better than in the interactions these two characters have. They are both forever changed by the time they spent together and Mrs. Coulter's actions from here to the end all revolve around one thing. And it's amazing to find out what it is at the end.

The Subtle Knife is about a young boy and girl finding each other while on the run, and discovering the mysteries of the universe and how they are affected by them. Evolution, creationism, and physics all collide in the background of the story and the streets of a foreign world are haunted by terrifying spectres that suck out the souls of adults. What is the difference between an adult and a child?

This book starts off in our own world with a boy, Will Parry, on the run. After killing a man who was threatening his mother, Will runs away and follows a cat through what appears to be a “window in the world,” a square of reality that has a different reality on the other side of it. This other world seems to be populated mostly by children and it is here that discovers a young girl, almost wild girl, who appears to be lost. The girl is Lyra, and the two join together to and help each other. Will is looking for his missing father, who it appears also found a window in reality, and Lyra is looking to solve the mystery surrounding Dust and her own part in the tale.

The two main children have encounters with many different children and adults in this story. The children are alone and wild and free, the adults working or manipulating or sabotaging. And which of these groups poses more of a threat, the wild and ignorant children or the manipulating, intelligent adults.

There are images in this book that stay with me forever. The scene of Pilgrimage in particular. Immortal beings on a mission of war, traveling thousands of miles out of their way to glimpse to sleeping children. Another when a scared and hurt young boy admits how glad he is to not be alone. And later, that same boy, taking charge and not being afraid to after what he wants.

The scene of an adolescent, on the very cusp of adulthood, putting all his effort into remaining innocent, wanting to be ignorant, but his effort fails him and his adult soul is ripped from his body and he is made into a mindless zombie.

The third and last book, The Amber Spyglass, finds the young boy and girl on a journey to right past wrongs and discover the truth about the genesis of humanity and the war being fought for our freedom. From vast vistas of the underworld, to sweeping battlefields, to the Kingdom of Heaven, the war is fought, but it comes down to these two children, who have to make a choice between knowledge and ignorance, experience and innocence, being an adult or being a child.

What can I say about this book? It's beautiful and touching. The growing the children do in this book is palpable and beautiful while still being awkward and very relateable. When the harpy flies at Lyra screeching, "Liar!" over and over again until Lyra is unable to distinguish between 'liar' and 'Lyra' is an astounding moment for that character. She has always prided herself on her story telling capabilities, her believable lies. And in on moment, she knows and the reader knows that she will never tell a lie again.

And Will! His love for his mother is so touching and throughout the previous book you knew and could feel that she was the most important thing in his world. And through his journey in this book you can feel the shift. His love for his mother never diminishes, but at the end, she isn't what can break his heart and tear him in two.

I love that we don't see the big battle, that the winner of it isn't important. There were only two things important about the batte. One was two people finally deciding that the person they created together was more important than anything else. The other, the look of relief that passed over the face of an ancient being as he finally found his rest.

What was important in battle for human kind was beings of shapes and sizes choosing love and free will and taking responsibility for their lives and choices. The last conversation in the book (and I'm doing my best not to spoil anything too much) was simple and very much reflected the first chapter of The Golden Compass. It between was girl, now a young woman, and daemon (her soul) and pretty much went as follows:

"We have to build it where we are."

"What? Build what, Lyra?"

"The Republic of Heaven."

We have to make our lives count and not live for the afterlife.

One of the many things that I love about these books is how much it is left up to interpretation. Many are sure it is completely blasphemous and it has probably been banned more than any other modern novel. I see interpret it completely differently. I was raised in an atheist household. It wasn’t until I was around nine years old that I began to know about religion. And it wasn’t until I was about sixteen that I realized the way I was raised was not the norm at all. I see these books as being some of the best stories about faith and belief, not religion, that I have ever read. I’m not going to say why, I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone, but I would be more than happy to take part in a discussion in the comments. Religion can be a touchy subject and these books certainly take a radically different look at the genesis story and the war in Heaven.

When telling people about these books I like to say that they are the opposite of Peter Pan.

Peter Pan was a great fantasy adventure that, at its heart, was a celebration of the innocence of children. From what I know of the J.M. Barrie (which is, admittedly, very little) he had to grow up very quickly as a child and, above anything, he wanted to preserve that innocent mentality of a child. In my opinion, the His Dark Materials trilogy is, at its core, about the emergence into adulthood, the leaving behind of ignorance and the celebration of knowledge and free will.

There is so much depths to these books, I hardly know what else to say. There is a fight for freedom, a mystery about atomic particles, travel through dimensions, soul-sucking monsters, armoured bears, tiny people who ride on dragon flies and yet the scenes that stay with me are the quiet ones. A young girl coming to understand the consequences of lying. A young boy coming to understand that he can rely on others.

A world coming to the conclusion that love and free will is better than oppression.

I could go on. I haven’t even talked about Daemons and intercision, Dust or Schrodinger’s Cat. I haven’t brought up Angels and The Authority. Please, please, I beg you, if you have not read these books, please do, and if you have I want to have a conversation about them with you. Leave comments, email me, PM, I don’t care. These books deserve to be read in a book club and I want to discuss!

Honestly, I’ve thought about starting a HDM podcast...I can’t believe there isn’t one.

(Moon.witche is author of Echoes of an Enigma, and a host for the awesome podcast blog, Temptation Twilight. You can usually find her speaking of thespians, editing some sound file for the podcast and huffing indignantly when it goes awry because she knows as well as I that technology is secretly out to get us, or spreading love and being a generally kind and sweet-natured individual who is full of win and awesomenicity.)


  1. "One took place in my living room while watching day time television, the other in a Dairy Queen."

    For me, one took place while reading the paper at my kitchen table, the other on a Greyhound bus at 3AM. My little overhead light was the only one on, and by God, I was NOT turning it off. :)

  2. comments on HDM. I really wanted to discuss it too. Oh well.

    songforevela...I understand completely.

  3. I have not read HDM only seen the film The Golden Compass. I will now though!

  4. The film does not do the books justice. HDM is a QUALITY series of books, Pullman is a fantastic author.. no matter how you feel about him when he opens his mouth.

    For a while there was going to be a cartoon series based on his books, I would have liked that better than the movie, I think. It is such a rich universe that he created. So layered and filled with powerful imagery. I don't really think though that it was meant to be a blockbuster movie, too much of it is cerebral.

    Personally, the first book is my favorite but I love the creation of new worlds. I hold HUGE expectations for their outcomes. I let my head wander through the possibilities. I feel like a kid again.

    I think that Rowling and Pullman both helped change the YA genre. I am always surprised when I run into people who read and have not heard of HDM. Pullman's love of Dante is a great way to introduce YA to deep themes in literature that Rowling only touched upon.

  5. Caitlin, you'd be so proud of me. I'm reading Golden Compass right now.

    Well, not right now because right now I'm leaving a comment, but rather in those moments where I find the time to read something that doesn't have to do with Twilight. know you love me. :D

  6. This is AccioBourbon from FF, AccioChocolate from Twilighted, and I'm in too much of a hurry to do a profile thingy, but I had to leave a comment for Moon.witch. I love, loved your book review for HDM.

    I love with all my heart the HDM trilogy. I read it about once every 18-24 mos and each time it just feeds my soul more fully. That chapter you spoke of affects me the very same way. "Tell them stories." Mary Malone's character fascinates and I wonder if you see her as another facet of femininity? I can think of several myself.

    I have the opposite experience as you. I was raised by a believing mother (though laid back about it) but only became comfortable with my agnosticism in the last 10 yrs or so. But I too believe the book can be as much about faith as about skepticism and humanism.

    In the ramp-up to the movie, I literally exhausted myself defending the books to Christian friends who were getting the propaganda emails about boycotting the film. I finally compiled a set of links to just email back to them, links that would at least offer more insight into the world Pullman created. I was happier with the movie that I expected to be (the really controversial ideas are not until Spyglass anyway), though disappointed that the concept of a daemon was not conveyed deeply enough.

    I could go on for a long time, but I have to get back to responsibilities. Would be tickled to talk more about HDM anytime! And I will sit down when I have more time and set myself up for commenting here in the right way.

  7. The movie was a huge disappoinment for me. They tried to hard to make it marketable. The scene where Lyra makes herself go into the fishing hut, in the book is powerful and really drives home how brave and determined Lyra is. In the movie it was almost nothing. And they implied that the kid lived a normal happy after being severed. They didn't even go into how he was DEAD the next morning. Chaaaa. I was upset.

    But, movie aside. As far as Mary as a facet of feminity, I would think she would represent love. Not familial love (like Ma Costa) but really a love of people and life and experience.

    And on the subject of christianity, I actually think these books are one of the best to get people to think about God. I love how it challenges ones ideas about God. I think a lot of people who haven't read the books think they say that God is evil. They don't. What I really get from them (about God) is that He is incomprehendable. God is never actually mentioned in these books. I always thought it was more a critism on the Bible, which was written by Romans, not Christians, so that makes sense to me.

    Anyways, I've totally forgotten what I was saying so I'm just going to post this.


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