Over the last two months, I’ve had one of my most delightful experiences with audiobooks. I decided to revisit the world of the His Dark Materials trilogy, since (a) it’s been many, many years since I read the books, and (b) a new book is coming out this fall. (THIS WEEK! NOW!!!)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 17 years (!!) since the publication of The Amber Spyglass, the 3rd book in the trilogy (following The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife). I remember being blown away by these books upon first read, but after all these years, I was fuzzy on the details.
Side note: I choose to disregard the existence of the Golden Compass movie, which utterly failed to capture the essence of the books and characters. But that’s an issue best left in the past…
So what was so special about these audiobooks?
For starters, they’re full-cast recordings. Oddly enough, full-cast audiobooks don’t usually appeal to me. When I’ve tried them before, I tend to feel removed from the story — maybe because it’s more like listening to a dramatization than like reading an actual book.
Whatever the reason, this time around, I just loved it. Philip Pullman takes the role of narrator, and he’s marvelous. His reading of his own work is nuanced and expressive, and he infuses his lines with wit, humor, and when needed, sorrow and intensity. Beyond Pullman himself, the rest of the cast is simply terrific. I don’t know who these voice actors are, but their talent is huge! The voice of Lyra was perfect — young, intense, brave, emotional — and Will was spot-on too, fierce, loving, worried, daring. Probably most magnificent was the voice of Iorek Byrnison — I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a deep, rumbly voice on an audiobook. If a polar bear could speak English and deigned to have a conversation with one of us puny humans, I bet that’s exactly what he’d sound like. Other stand-outs are the voices of Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby and the often wicked but strangely sympathetic Mrs. Coulter.
Now, if you’ve read these books, you know that an important part of Pullman’s world building is the presence of daemons — a corporeal, animal being who represents each person’s true inner being. Every human in Lyra’s world has a daemon, and the shape they take is often quite representative of the nature of the person. Children’s daemon’s can change shape at will, until they child reaches puberty, at about which time the daemon settles into his or her final shape. Worth noting, too, is that a daemon is always the opposite gender of the person it’s attached to — so Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon is male. On the audiobooks, the daemons who have speaking roles are voiced in ways completely appropriate to their personalities. The absolute best is Lee’s daemon Hester, a jackrabbit with a feminine Western twang.
As for the story, I’m kind of assuming that anyone bothering to read this post is already familiar with the amazing world of His Dark Materials. For those who aren’t familiar, here are the brief plot summaries from Goodreads:
Book 1 – The Golden Compass (also published under the title Northern Lights):
Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.
Book 2 – The Subtle Knife:
Lost in a new world, Lyra finds Will—a boy on the run, a murderer—a worthy and welcome ally. For this is a world where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and witches share the skies with troops of angels.
Each is searching—Lyra for the meaning of Dark Matter, Will for his missing father—but what they find instead is a deadly secret, a knife of untold power. And neither Lyra nor Will suspects how tightly their lives, their loves, and their destinies are bound together… until they are split apart.
Book 3 – The Amber Spyglass:
The Amber Spyglass brings the intrigue of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife to a heart-stopping end, marking the final volume of His Dark Materials as the most powerful of the trilogy.
Along with the return of Lyra, Will, Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, Dr. Mary Malone, and Iorek Byrnison the armored bear, come a host of new characters: the Mulefa, mysterious wheeled creatures with the power to see Dust; Gallivespian Lord Roke, a hand-high spymaster to Lord Asriel; and Metatron, a fierce and mighty angel. So, too, come startling revelations: the painful price Lyra must pay to walk through the land of the dead, the haunting power of Dr. Malone’s amber spyglass, and the names of who will live–and who will die–for love. And all the while, war rages with the Kingdom of Heaven, a brutal battle that–in its shocking outcome–will uncover the secret of Dust. Philip Pullman deftly brings the cliff-hangers and mysteries of His Dark Materials to an earth-shattering conclusion–and confirms his fantasy trilogy as an undoubted and enduring classic.
It’s funny how certain things stick in your mind — or my mind, anyway. I absolutely remembered about Dust and daemons, about Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, the Mulefa, Metatron, and more. What I didn’t remember was the sheer power of this story. What starts out feeling mostly like a children’s book (albeit a children’s book with gifted-level vocabulary) by the end has transformed into an epic tale that shares universal truths about love, honesty, the nature of good and evil, devotion, betrayal, friendship, and freedom.
The emotional impact by the end is enormous. I clearly remembered being devastated by the end of the trilogy, and yet I was still pretty much hit over the head with an anvil all over again while listening by the intensity of the heart-ache the characters experience. It’s simply lovely and tragic and uplifting, all at the same time.
As an added bonus, Pullman later published two shorter works set in the same world: Lyra’s Oxford, which takes place two years after the conclusion of The Amber Spyglass, and Once Upon a Time in the North, which is set about 35 years earlier, showing the first eventful meeting of Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison. Both of these novellas are available as audiobooks, and like the main trilogy, are highly enriched by the full-cast recording. (It’s definitely worth getting the hard copies as well, as the physical editions include wonderful woodcut illustrations and all sorts of bits and pieces of ephemera related to His Dark Materials — writing scraps, maps, ballooning guides, postcards, and even a board game.)
Finally, there’s a short story available either as an e-book or audiobook. The Collectors is very creepy, and I’d say listen to the audio version. Bill Nighy does a fabulous job with the narration, and it only takes about a half hour, but is definitely worth it.
I realize that this is by no means a comprehensive book review of His Dark Materials and the associated works. And it’s not meant to be. Really, I’ve just gotten completely swept away by these wonderful audiobooks, and I couldn’t keep it to myself a moment longer!
Especially for anyone thinking about reading the upcoming new release, La Belle Sauvage, going back to His Dark Materials via audiobook will be a huge treat, absolutely worth the time.
Needless to say, for anyone who hasn’t read these books at all yet, please do! His Dark Materials is one of those trilogies usually shelved with children’s fiction, but which truly transcends the age or genre labels. These books are just plain good fantasy literature; they transport us to multiple alternate worlds but never lose their human heart.
Books in the series:
The Golden Compass (1995)
The Subtle Knife (1997)
The Amber Spyglass (2000)
Lyra’s Oxford (2003)
Once Upon a Time in the North (2008)
The Collectors (2014)
NEW: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, book 1) – to be released 10/19/2017