Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A disappointing ending

So I picked up the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy with some trepidation. I was a little nervous -- from what I knew this book might stray into some areas that I was exploring for a novel. It was also a "young adult" book that had seen some significant popularity among the not-so-young adult set. And sometimes those work for me, sometimes they crash and burn. It was also a full cast recording (with my commute schedule, almost all of my "reading" is done via audiobooks) -- something I usually find irritating compared to a single talented narrator.

But when I put on The Golden Compass I was immediately thrilled. Here was a book with a richly developed world, one that was ingenious and fascinating and neither something I'd read before nor something I'd thought of myself. The main character was fairly interesting, some of the peripheral characters quite so. The pacing was great and the narration never condescended into undue exposition.

But above all, it was fun in a way that adult books aren't. With few exceptions, the bad guys were bad and the good guys were good and there was just enough tragedy to keep things poignant -- but never maudlin. I had fun, I finished it in a few days, and came home raving and quickly downloading the 2nd book in the trilogy.

The Subtle Knife wasn't quite as good. Unfulfilling, it clearly was a linking text between the warmup and the climax. And, as with any good three act play, the 2nd act ended in a hovering sense of gloom. One of the most likable secondary characters was dead, a few tertiary characters were dead, and pretty much everyone was either on the run or in the hands of the enemy.

Remember Empire Strikes Back? The on the run, Lando's betrayal, Han Solo frozen in Carbonite, Luke wounded from his battle with Darth Vader...and the whole "you are not my father!" thing? Same feeling.

So when my birthday rolled around and (thank you Elaine and Greg!) I got more credit on Audible, The Amber Spyglass was the first title I downloaded. And, sadly, it was not worth the wait. After the tension concluding The Subtle Knife, I was really looking for, and expecting, something good.

In reality, The Subtle Knife was overly long, unfocused, and suffered from an excess of not-so-hidden agenda, deus ex machina, and a failed sweep of epic storytelling that left the book feeling thin.

The word, so richly developed in the first book, was almost entirely abandoned in the favor of a sped up trip through a complex multiverse with settings, characters, and devices from probably a dozen different realities. That's fine, but it takes a talent to pull off that sort of sweep that wasn't present here. It was also disconcerting, too dramatic a change from what I was expecting.

Pullman was also widely accused of an anti-Christian (if not fully anti-religious) agenda. The sort of people you'd expect to say such things called for boycotts, posted flaming reviews on Amazon, created blogs, and all the rest. At the start, I struggled to see what all the fuss was about. These folks do tend to over-react, I thought, and while Compass was clearly agnostic and had a mildly anti-Christian sense in so far as it characterized the church of its world as an oppressive, secretive, controlling organization. Picture the Catholic Church back in the bad old days (by which I mean inquisition) and you'll have a pretty accurate picture.

Knife was a little more active, pushing the same themes somewhat more clearly. But suddenly Spyglass came along and wow, the whole thing took a sharp turn and headed off in a new direction. This wasn't an agnostic book. It pushed, they were right, an overtly anti-Christian and anti-religious agenda. Religion was bad. It kept people down. It punished people. It was negative, negative, negative. And I'm not just talking about the organization, I'm talking about God. The Big Man himself makes an appearance, as do a few not-so-polite lieutenants and some well intentioned (and kind of gay) rebel angels.

This wasn't agnostic ("I haven't decided if there is a god or not") or even atheist ("I have decided, and there is no god"). It knew there was a god -- and he was not on the side of the angels. It actually made me somewhat uncomfortable, the sheer aggression of this stance.

I once said that a lot of those "socially active" artists of the 1980's (Phil Collins, U2, all those aid concert guys) sometimes sacrificed the quality of their music in order to package up a message. And that's the final problem I had with Pullman's segue into hard core anti-religious stance. The quality of the story seemed to suffer in order to make sure that all the atrocities, injustices, and abuses of the religious entities and organizations got their due time.

It failed into all of the sorts of things that I lauded Compass for staying away from. Excessive exposition. Sudden moments of inspired and unsupported knowledge. Deus ex machina personality changes.

Too bad. I'd enjoyed the first book with its rich universe and carefree story. I'd appreciated the youthful perspective of the narrators' eyes. But book three seemed to try too hard to grow up, to achieve a breadth of action, a cosmic significance, and a intensity of agenda that it just couldn't support.

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