I don't have enough bad things to say about His Dark Materials, and very few good things to say about it.
(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)
After everyone told me how great they are, and given my general taste in reading, I fully expected to enjoy them. Expected it so much that I even splashed out and bought nice editions of all three books at one go, with sturdy acid-free paper and everything so they would last and be wonderful treasures on my book shelf that one day my kids could read. Really, I did.
My kids will never read these books. Not until they're at least 30.
Are you getting the sense that I didn't like them?
Minor, run-of-the-mill criticisms include trivialities such as:
- the main character wasn't terribly likeable or sympathetic
- in fact, most of the human characters were complete cunts (except for Lee Scoresby, who gets killed for the very reason that he's the only decent dude therein, and in Pullman's world we kill off all the nice characters just make sure you cry that little bit extra)
- The plot wasn't tied together very well at the end. You read and read and read looking to see how it all connects, and there's this never-ending section of crap to slog through that isn't really relevant, and then one character shows up on the last page and explains everything in 4 sentences. Not the best story-telling in the world.
- Several key things never get explained (like how the knife came into being), and are just left dangling
- they weren't nearly as anti-religion as I had been led to believe
THEY'RE FUCKING TERRIFYING. THEY'RE HEART-WRENCHINGLY, SICKENINGLY, NAUSEATINGLY, GUT-TWISTINGLY TERRIFYING.
When it comes to frightening children, Pullman makes Walt Disney look like Mother fucking Theresa.
Now I don't have a problem with a bit of scary stuff and suspense. You need conflict to create drama, and you need drama to make it worth reading, otherwise it's all a bunch of Dick and Jane crap. But there's a line.
Harry Potter is not the be-all and end-all of kids' adventure fiction, far from it, but for the purposes of comparing His Dark Materials with magical adventure fantasy fiction aimed at a similar age group it will suit well enough.
In Harry Potter there is a thing called a Dementor. It's a scary being that sucks people's souls out through their mouths. That's creepy. It's a fate worse than death. In His Dark Materials there's a thing called a Specter. It attacks adults and eats their consciousness effectively making them zombies. Same concept, really. The difference is that JK Rowling doesn't graphically describe scenes where a father is attacked by a dementor, but while fleeing has carried his 3-year-old son into a river, who is then dropped into said river as father becomes a zombie, and flops about, drowning, screaming, crying, begging his father to pick him up. Dad ingores the kid. Mentally, he's gone. Baby is drowning in river at his feet.
It's incredibly sick.
Pullman's brand of terror happens to be the one that pushes my buttons the most. It's not blood and guts and brains being spattered about. Most kids don't find that stuff scary, and neither do I. What terrifies me is separation. I had wicked separation anxiety as a kid, and still struggle with it from time to time. This was triggered by a traumatic event that happened when I was 2 or 3, where I thought my mom was being taken from me forever. What Pullman does is to think of every kind of painful separation -- physical, emotional, spiritual, whatever -- and then throw it at you, over and over again in waves, in every conceivable permutation: children being separated from parents, friends from friends, people from daemons (souls), you name it, he takes it away.
I'm still angry at Pullman because I can't get these images out of my head. I wanted some light reading for the holidays. I chose some "children's" literature that had been recommended to me by several people whose judgement I generally trust. Damn near ruined my Christmas. I spent every day in tears, shaking with terror.
The only reason I read all three was that by the end of the first book, if I had stopped, it would have been like turning off a horror movie at the scariest part, which I know is the worst thing you can. You have to watch to the end so you can see everything comes out OK eventually. That was the one and only reason I kept reading.
I still have every book I've ever owned. When I read a book, I keep it (unless it's a library book, obv). These are the first ever books I've deliberately gotten rid of. When I got back from Pirate's I woke up, grabbed the books, and took them straight up to Oxfam. I don't even want them on my shelves. I don't want to look at them. Fucking awful books.