Tag Archives: children’s fiction

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

So, I’ve finally reached the end of the His Dark Materials series.  I have my answers as to what happens to Lyra and Will — for the most part.  I also have answers for what happens to all the major characters, which is satisfying.  Out of all the books, The Amber Spyglass is the most complex of the three by far.  It is, therefore, the most rewarding to read.  Pullman constructs a universe whose properties lend us the freedom to imagine many answers to our questions, and to make what we will of the final events in Lyra and Will’s story.

We start out the book with Lyra kidnapped and drugged by her mother, with Will and Iorek in pursuit.  Meanwhile, Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, is raising an army — and an armory — to wage war with Metatron, the angel who has taken control of all the forces loyal to the Authority.  The main story in a more conventional book would be the fight between Lord Asriel and Metatron.

Instead, we follow Will’s efforts to free Lyra from her mother and keep her safe.  They are joined, at various points, by angels, Gallivespians (a sort of fairy-like creature), and Mary Malone, the scientist from The Subtle Knife.  Their main task, Lyra discovers from the alethiometer, is to set free the spirits in the world of the dead.  The two of them, along with two Gallivespians, travel to perform this task, facing significant peril along the way, not the least of which is separation from their dæmons.

Meanwhile, Mary Malone, who slipped through into another world after destroying equipment back in Oxford, finds herself at home among a species of creatures called mulefa.  She lives with them, learns their ways, and discovers that even they are untouched by the problems of Dust; it’s required for the survival of trees the mulefa depend upon, and it’s not flowing as it used to.  Mary constructs a spyglass in order to view the Dust directly, which comes in handy when she happens upon Will and Lyra once again.

I think the beauty of The Amber Spyglass is that it has a lot to say about religion — especially Christianity — but that one can interpret its message in many ways.  There’s a historical commentary in there, as well as a warning about the dangers of blind faith.  That’s one of the reasons I liked the book so much; I can see many of my own attitudes toward organized religion (as opposed to faith come by honestly) folded within.  I don’t agree with everything Pullman suggests, but I at least enjoyed the food for thought he provides.

I’m going to miss this series.  I whizzed through it, by my own standards — I usually break up series in order to provide myself a little bit of time to process what’s going on.  It was just too engrossing for me to do that this time.  I think the His Dark Materials series is one of the best I’ve read that’s intended for children and young adults.  I’ll be holding on to them for my own children to read some day, and that’s one of the highest sorts of praise I can offer a book.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

I rarely read one book after another in a series; I like to have other books interspersed in between to allow me some time to process the events and to put them in perspective.  I just couldn’t do that with the His Dark Materials series.  The first one was too good.  This time, Pullman provides us with a strong hero to go along with the strong heroine he gave us in The Golden Compass, and the result is another wonderful book.

The Subtle Knife starts off with a bang.  Will Parry, a young man with an absent father and a mentally ill mother, is forced to leave his mother with a neighbor while he tries to track down his father.  On his way out of town, he kills a man who is trying to steal from him and runs from the man’s partner.  Seeking a place to hide, he finds a small slit in space and walks through it into another world.

It’s in that other world where he meets up with Lyra.  The two band together, moving back and forth between Will’s universe and the crossroads universe known as Cittàgazze.  Will’s world matches closely with ours (I suspect it’s supposed to be our world), and Lyra visits a scientist at Oxford to ask about Dust.  Her inquiries, combined with Will’s crime, make life a little sketchy for the two of them there.

Things aren’t much better in Cittàgazze.  There is an abundance of children, but few cognizant adults.  Specters, invisible and harmless to children, seek out adults and seem to feed on their consciousness.  Life isn’t easier for Lyra and Will in this child-only place; events occur that make it just as uncomfortable and dangerous as Will’s world.

Part of the danger comes from Lyra ignoring the alethiometer.  It tells her that her task is to assist Will in his quest to find his father, and she seeks out information on Dust instead, which tips off the people looking for Will.  One ignores an oracle at one’s peril, it would appear.

Throughout the book, Pullman gives us more information about the larger story behind the smaller events of Lyra and Will’s lives.  The Oxford scientist, Mary Malone, is researching dark matter (what she terms “Shadows”), and also used to be a nun.  On Lyra’s first visit, she asks about Dust, and the connection is made that dark matter and Dust are most likely the same thing — which helps them to some extent, but leaves them still not knowing exactly what it is.

We also get more theology mixed in here.  There are angels traveling through the universes to join with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father.  Lyra herself is talked about in some religiously-interesting ways.  We still have witches — Serafina Pekkala is still with us — but we also gain a shaman.

And, of course, there’s the knife itself.  Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife at a high price and knows of its powers to keep away specters.  What he doesn’t know is that it has some other interesting lore attached to it, and that lore may have a great deal to say about what Will’s destiny is.

The most interesting thing to me about The Subtle Knife is the mythology Pullman is building.  I really want to know what’s going on, and can’t wait to get into the third book to see how he wraps everything up.  I’m at a complete loss for how this is going to play out, and it makes me really happy to find a book series that keeps me guessing.  Maybe it’ll be fantastic, maybe it’ll fall apart at the end; the fun is in the anticipation of how great it can be, which makes this book pretty great in and of itself.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it.  I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.

There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives.  She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel.  Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life.  Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will.  Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.

Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined.  Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications.  I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it.  Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology.  Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together.  I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.

The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted.  Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events.  The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.

But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself.  She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do.  She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar.  Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth.  More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child.  Lyra is not that, and will never be that.  She is, however, a remarkable child.  Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring.  Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.  They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later.  After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

I’ve already read the entire Chronicles of Prydain series.  I loved it, so I picked up a matching copy of this book, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain.  I’m not quite sure what I was expecting — maybe a story about Taran’s early childhood mixed in with some more traditional background lore — but what I got was perfectly delightful.

The book is made up of eight short stories.  The first, “The Foundling,” is not, as I had expected, about Taran’s origin or early childhood.  It is, rather, about Dallben’s early years.  It turns out that he has some interesting foster parents — Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, the three fate-like figures who seem to know all (or cause all) events in Prydain.  We also learn how Dallben became so wise, the story of which echoes how Finn MacCool earned his intelligence in Celtic mythology.  Finally, we also get to find out how Dallben obtained The Book of Three and what consequences he had to face for owning it.

The second story, “The Stone,” is modeled on a traditional folktale frame; we do have Doli, but it’s not really a story about him.  He merely serves as the fairy-world representative for the main character, Maibon.  In exchange for helping Doli out of a jam, Maibon compels Doli to honor the rule of granting a boon to a human who comes to a Fair Folk’s aid.  Maibon wishes for something foolish, and we get to see the result.

“The True Enchanter” feels both familiar and new.  Drawing from both the Western fairy tale structure and the plot of at least one Greek myth I can think of, Alexander writes of an enchantress princess, Angharad, and her difficulty with the rules placed on her regarding her choice of a husband.  Told by her mother she must only choose from the pool of enchanters, Angharad quickly decides that the first two suitors, based on their magical performances, are not for her.  The third suitor, however, turns out to be more interesting.

“The Rascal Crow” truly reminds me of one of Aesop’s fables.  I think it could fit right in with his canon.  After the animals of Prydain learn of the evilness of King Arawn, Kadwyr the crow disparages the offers of help the other species bring to the defense.  Insisting, teasingly, that he can carry out all the tasks better than the other animals, he sets off to protect the land.  Alexander shows us the consequences of believing only oneself to be competent and the value of learning to trust and rely on others.

For the fifth story, “The Sword,” Alexander writes about the origin of the great sword Dyrnwyn and of how it became tainted.  Rhytta, the King of Prydain, inherited the sword.  Through his arrogant and dismissive behavior toward his subjects, Rhytta commits a terrible act.  From there, the sword changes slowly from shining to stained as the king makes further and further mistakes, yet refuses to change his behavior.

“The Smith, the Weaver, and the Harper,” explains how a disguised Arawn managed to take the forging and weaving knowledge of Prydain away from its artisans.  Neither the smith nor the weaver Arawn tricks manage to realize that something for nothing is never really for nothing — there is always a cost.  The harper, however, manages to see what his fellow tradesmen were not, and confronts the true face of Arawn.

The penultimate story, “Coll and his White Pig,” is, delightfully, about Coll.  We still don’t learn how Coll happened to own Hen Wen.  Alexander does, however, show us Coll’s nature through the actions he takes while attempting to rescue Hen Wen after she is captured by Arawn’s henchmen.  Not one to leave us completely hanging, Alexander also tells us how Coll and Dallben came to be living together in Caer Dallben.

The last story is about Fflewddur Fflam, our favorite truth-bending bard.  “The Truthful Harp” begins with Fflewddur’s study to become a bard, and how that didn’t go so well.  After failing his test, Fflam is given a new harp by the Chief Bard.  Fflam goes through several adventures (and several harp strings) before arriving back to the Chief Bard and reporting on his exploits, first through fibbing and later by telling the truth.

I love the lessons Alexander imparts to the readers of The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain.  He takes inspiration from several different traditional folklore and mythological traditions while keeping Wales in the forefront of his mind.  While the stories can stand on their own, they are, I suspect, easier to understand and enjoy if one has first read the books in the Chronicles of Prydain series.  That’s the only reason I can’t give it a 5; some younger readers, especially, are likely to be a little lost coming in to some of the stories.  Overall, however, I think most children, young adults, and, yes, adults, will enjoy what Alexander can tell them about the goings-on in Prydain.

Rating: 4/5

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The High King by Lloyd Alexander

So we’ve come to the end of the Tales of Prydain.  Lloyd Alexander’s young adult fantasy series about Taran, an Assistant Pig-Keeper with a most interesting history, is tied up neatly here, with small events occurring far in the past making big differences in the end of the story.  It makes for a rich conclusion, made bittersweet by the more serious tone Alexander employs.

The story starts with Taran and his companions setting off to assist Gwydion with the task of stopping Arawn from achieving total control over Prydain once and for all.  On the road to completing this task, the group faces down adversity from varied sources.  In these challenges, Taran leads his followers admirably, facing difficult choices well — not without debate and doubt, but always with a mind as to what’s best for his companions and his land.

One thing that sets this book apart from the others is the number of notable deaths that occur.  I won’t say who, but many of the people Taran holds dear end up falling along the way.  The darker tone creates a mood of foreboding and sadness that is appropriate; after all, we are seeking the end of an evil man.  Because of this, the book also has a greater sense of urgency than the previous four, with a more doubtful ending — indeed, it may not be the ending the reader expects.

The culmination of this series is the development of a boy into a man.  Before our eyes, Taran has gone from a headstrong youth eager for a fight to a man who seeks truth and wisdom.  It’s a worthy example for younger readers to be exposed to.  For those of us who are older, we get to enjoy his development (and perhaps be reminded of our own paths of growth).

The Chronicles of Prydain have come to their end.  Yet the lessons they teach — that we can shape our own destiny, that we should strive for the correct path and not the easy one, that true friends are worth sacrificing for — endure.  What a treasure of a series.

Rating: 5/5

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Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

The Chronicles of Prydain is a young adult staple series.  The books have been nominated for and won awards in the world of children’s literature.  They have been read widely since their publication in the 1960s.  After reading Taran Wanderer, the fourth and penultimate book of the series, I have a deeper understanding of why the books are so well-regarded.

Our tale picks up with Taran a little older than he was when we left him.  He has realized his feelings for Eilonwy are romantic, and wishes to marry her.  There’s only one problem — how does an Assistant Pig-Keeper get the courage to propose to a princess?

Taran has no idea of what his parentage is.  He sets out on a quest to find out who his father is.  Adventures ensue.

The special thing about the adventures is that, wherever he goes, Taran proves himself to be a mature young man.  He acts with honor and honesty, fights only noble fights, and seeks peace and belonging where he goes.  He makes a place for himself wherever he ends up through his good actions.  He earns himself a dozen “parents” along his path, one so desperate that he lies about being Taran’s father.  Yet Taran, like all teenagers, needs to find and realize himself; only when he gets to the end goal of his journey does he realize the truth.

This is a different book from the others.  Taran is in a very different head space, already knowing right from wrong, and able to restrain himself.  Alexander has crafted a storyline that is much closer to traditional stories and myths in Taran Wanderer, and the result is pleasant.  It retains our familiar characters while giving them room to show us that they are more than they were at the beginning through the use of variants of often-invoked archetypal plot lines.  I found the twining together of our hero’s tale with folktale elements comforting.  Alexander does a masterful job of making the traditional plots and Taran’s story one, and produces something wonderful for his effort.

Rating:  5/5.

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The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

Oh, back to Prydain and the usual cast of characters.  I can’t get enough of Lloyd Alexander’s imaginary land; these books are timeless with regards to the quality of the story.  The lessons they impart and the plots they follow are at once familiar and fresh.  They are, in one word, delightful.

I actually liked The Castle of Llyr better than the last one, The Black Cauldron.  This book, rather than being a story about sacrifice for the good of all, is more about the exploration of relationships.  Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but the development and growth of the children from Caer Dallben is just as interesting as the fighting of battles for the fate of the people.

We are introduced here to some new characters, most notably Prince Rhun, a bumbling young man who, to Taran’s dismay, is betrothed to Eilonwy.  When Eilonwy goes missing, Taran is given the task of watching after Rhun when they go out searching for her.  Adventures ensue, but lessons are also learned.  While he is unaware of the consequences of his actions at times, and is not the most competent of people, he is not a bad person.  While Taran saw him as a burden at the beginning of their trek, he learns to view him as someone who has value and an honorable inner core.

Rhun also does not have illusions about how he actually performs on tasks.  He is aware of his limitations.  Alexander has crafted a character that is easier for children and teens to relate to in Rhun, I think, than in Taran, who, despite his faults, somehow always manages to have things fall his way.  Prince Rhun doesn’t have that, and is a more believable supporting character due to it.

Another delicious part of the story of this book is the relationship between Taran and Eilonwy.  There’s always been hints that there is a romantic relationship tying the two together, but it is in this book, with the premonitory presence of Prince Rhun, to actually kindle something more blatant.  It’s rewarding to know that two characters I love also love each other.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the next two books, and wonder if they also are in the collection of short stories by Alexander about the land of Prydain.

Don’t tell me, though.  It’s too fun to find out on my own

Rating:  5/5.

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