I got a late start on the fantasy genre. I had never read J.R.R. Tolkien's landmark "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, nor J.K. Rowlings "Harry Potter" series, until I was 17. Since then, I have devoured books of the genre voraciously -- Neil Gaiman and C.S. Lewis soon rose to the top of my list -- but I still find myself catching up even on the essential works. Thus I found myself reading Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy this summer.
Broadly speaking, the story of "The Golden Compass" (Book 1 in the series) revolves around an orphan named Lyra Belacqua who is seeking to find her best friend Roger, who was abducted by 'Gobblers' and taken away to the wild North for experimentation concerning a mysterious particle called Dust. Along the way, she encounters her (very much alive) mother and father, a family of Gyptians, a armored polar bear, a cowboy balloonist, and an organization called the Magisterium that appears to be a heavily bureaucratized version of the Catholic Church.
That's a broad brush, but it already demonstrates one of the weaknesses of this novel. The story is simply not there. Lyra moves from location to location not out of a sense of purpose, but simply because "events conspired." She is relocated to the home of Ms. Coulter because the Master of Jordan College had to give her up. She escaped with the Gyptians because they saved her from the menacing men on the streets. She traveled to the wild North in order to 1) find Roger and 2) find her uncle Lord Asriel. This is not compelling stuff. In fact, The Golden Compass seems to function almost like a second installment in an ongoing trilogy -- the action is largely episodic, and the primary movement within the story is to propel characters' personal journeys forward to prepare them for the conflict/climax/resolution writ large in the next installment. Having already read "The Subtle Knife" (Book 2 in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy), I know that the central storyline for the series, and indeed the primary motivators for the ongoing conflict, doesn't even appear until midway through that book. In the meanwhile, we are obliged to see things from Lyra's perspective, ignorant of the motivation of the other main characters.
The second big problem I can already tell in this series is quite simply the lack of a decent villain. The great enemy of Lyra and of Lord Asriel is the Magisterium, which unfortunately is a bureaucratic agency and thus not terribly compelling. Yet bureaucracy is not its greatest flaw as a villain. It is simply too broad of a caricature, and too direct a parody, to be effective. Even a cursory reading will indicate that the Magisterium stands for the Catholic Church, and it's pretty obvious that Pullman has strong feelings about Catholicism. Thus, the presentation is off: if you are sympathetic to Catholicism, you will instinctively feel affinity towards this villain, while those who are as anti-Catholic as Pullman will connect the dots too easily, and not give the villain enough time to define itself.
There is not a consistent archenemy from within the Magisterium; the lesser agents of Evil Inc. seem interchangeable, and are killed off at an alarming rate. My attention was first drawn to this after reading the first few pages of "The Subtle Knife," where a witch attacks Ms. Coulter and an evidently important Bishop who had just been introduced. Ms. Coulter survives; the bishop doesn't.
Ms. Coulter herself is a quasi-independent agent of the Magisterium, as the head of the General Oblation Board, but she cannot be the central villain for two reasons. First, she is eventually redeemed from her allegiance to the Magisterium by her love for her daughter Lyra, and therefore is not 'defeated'. Second, as an agent of the Magisterium, she fits naturally into the 'secondary villain' role that appears as a more immediate threat to the protagonist but is defeated before the final showdown with evil incarnate. This literary archetype appears as Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy (a secondary villain to the Emperor), and Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (who similarly plays second fiddle to Sauron). Thus, the great menace of the series will have to wait. This villain isn't even mentioned until the second book, although even that seems to be a head-fake. But I leave that for another review.
It may surprise you to know that I enjoyed this book. Despite these deep-seated flaws in the story, Pullman managed to pull it together, largely through his colorful prose and sometimes ingenious imagination. There is enough profundity in the image of a man and his soul walking together down a country lane, to carry a book. If these dramatic flaws are resolved, it could easily carry the whole trilogy. But we shall see.