Book Review: His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)

Publisher: Everyman’s Library

Pages: 1102

Release Date: 2011

Summary (from Goodreads):

Northern Lights introduces Lyra, an orphan, who lives in a parallel universe in which science, theology and magic are entwined. Lyra’s search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children and turns into a quest to understand a mysterious phenomenon called Dust. In The Subtle Knife she is joined on her journey by Will, a boy who possesses a knife that can cut windows between worlds. As Lyra learns the truth about her parents and her prophesied destiny, the two young people are caught up in a war against celestial powers that ranges across many worlds and leads to a thrilling conclusion in The Amber Spyglass.


I started reading this for the Rereadathon hosted by the lovely Bex. I had the books as a child and adored them, though I’ll admit it took a while to get into them. I distinctly remember reading the first page of Northern Lights and putting the book down, deciding it was boring. Luckily I got past that and it was one of my favourite series for a long time. My copies of the books are pretty battered and last year Nathan bought me a beautiful edition of all three stories and I thought the Rereadathon was the perfect time to read it.

Northern Lights, the first book, is by far my favourite. I think because it’s more focussed on Lyra than the other two, and she’s the reason I fell in love with the series in the first place. She’s easily one of my favourite protagonists. She’s brave and rude and stubborn and she grows and changes so much over the series, you really see her grow up and I love the progression. She lives in an alternate world and undertakes a dangerous journey to rescue her friend from the child-stealing Gobblers, and encounters armoured bears, witches and what is basically child torture at the hands of the Church.

The second book The Subtle Knife, introduces Will, a young boy from our world who is searching for his missing father and stumbles into another world. I always find it a bit jarring to start the second book without Lyra but I soon settle into it and love Will (almost) as much as Lyra. Unlike a lot of second-in-the-trilogy books, this one doesn’t feel like a filler ready for the finale: it’s fast paced and shows the multitude of other universes that are there for Lyra and Will to discover.

The final book, The Amber Spyglass, ties together all the previous story lines with some of my favourite scenes: Lyra and Will venturing into the land of the dead is one that’s always stuck with me. The ending is so bittersweet, it’s one of my favourite ever endings. Much better than your typical happily ever after.

The use of daemons in the book is fantastic. They’re animal versions of what some might call your soul. As children they can take whatever form they like but when you reach puberty they settle, and the shape indicates something about your nature i.e. servants tend to have dog daemons. While this made me want a daemon really badly, it’s also a great literary device: Lyra rarely goes over thoughts in her head or spends pages monologuing. Instead she has conversations with Pantalaimon, her daemon, which shows her thought processes and them deciding things between each other.

Rereading as an adult I can see how controversial this book is to some people. There’s so many complex story lines involving the Church and religion – in the final book we actually see God die. When I was younger I don’t think I was really bothered about those story lines, I just wanted to know what happened to Lyra, but I found it more interesting this time round. I didn’t take from it that Christianity/all religion is bad, but that we should question authority instead of following something blindly.

I love this trilogy but couldn’t quite bring myself to give it 5 stars, and that’s mainly because of the Mary Malone chapters. I found them pretty boring as a child and hoped I’d be more interested as an adult, but they still felt slow and over detailed to me. I understand why they’re there but, as with some other chapters, if there’s no Lyra them I’m just not as interested!

Still, this is a fantastic series, a definite modern day classic and one that I recommended to everyone when I was younger, and still do to this day. This edition has the addition of ‘Lantern Slides’ little snippets from the author that show moments from the characters lives that we don’t see in the book. As someone who’s loved the world for years, it was great to get a little new information too.

I understand this book isn’t for everyone and that some take offence to its content, but it was a huge part of my childhood and it’s still incredibly satisfying to read as an adult. Pullman’s writing is beautiful and the worlds he builds are colourful, imaginative and so detailed you believe they could be real. If you’ve not read this yet then give it a go!


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2 Replies to “Book Review: His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)”

  1. This is one of my favourite books too – I even included it on my top 5 books of all time blog post! I always love to see other people rereading and re-loving this beautiful and arguably underrated book!

    1. I think I have it on a similar list somewhere! I know what you mean, it used to annoy me when I was younger that everyone raved about Harry Potter (which is great, of course) but no one raved as much about this. It was good to reread after so many years.

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