His Dark Materials rocks! Adult fantasy doesn't!


I've been reading Philip Pullman's trilogy for the past week and I am enchanted.

At first, I didn't warm up to the book, I kept reading samples of the first few paragraphs and they read so much like adult fantasy I was turned away. I felt like whatever a daemon, there'd be some horribly sedate and technical system of magic aligned with it and Lyra would be like any other of the dozens of deadweight shitbathers that infest the genre like termites biting at the very words that make them up.

Finally, one day I just decided to bite the bullet and buy it on the basis of the great recommendations I'd gotten (I think Sparky made one, and her taste is always helpful) and by the end of the 1st chapter it fully recovered from the first few paragraphs and had me in its fascination, determinedly not like the flying turds adult fantasy authors assquack of their bungholes.

That means His Dark Materials trusts its reader to read into the psychology of the characters without interminable paragraphs of plotting and thinking laid out in their minds. It means there's actual wonder and fanciful fantasy that gets your imagination churning. It means a blessed lack of many of the Tolkien worlds. It means there's an actual style to the author's writing and prose that can make you smile. It means no tortured pseudo-poetic mental state or landscape descriptions. It means really GOOD names like Lyra Silvertongue or Mrs. Coulter or Iorek Byrnison or Sir Charles or Lee Scoresby. There's a single case of Grolwath'il-bir Shippellithdick III of the Blasted Stones in His Dark Materials.

The villains are so menacing they get your heart racing and your mind thumping every time they come on the page. Especially since Pullman usually draws them with such a silent menace most of the time. That crazy young man in the Tower of Angels, the way Sir Charles is reintroduced, Lord Asriel's ambiguity, that other bear king. But best of all is Mrs. Coulter. Wow, what a character. I find I like to read His Dark Materials while listening to jazz-pop singer Mika Nakashima and I picture Mrs. Coulter looking like her (if you added some Pullman-style witch into the mix). That monkey gets more and more terrifying each time and she is so disquietingly evil, yet so classy, beautiful, polite and charming, its just marvelous.

The two child main characters are fantastic in their resourcefulness. You can't help but cheer how they are able to think up such great ideas on the spot or lie, steal and cheat their way through impossible odds. I'm especially reminded of the kick-ass scene in that abandoned city where the mob of kids was coming at them. (That description of them as a unit was fantastic, BTW.)

I'm more than half way through the Subtle Knife and I love the magical instruments or the ones made seem more magical, like the air ballon, or that Victorian instrument Lord Asriel using the Jordan meeting. The compass and the knife are the coolest Magical Fantasy Things I Wish There Was in Real Life in a long time.

I also like the spiritual angle the story is leading so far. I have no idea what the end result will be but I suspect it will be surprising. The one I wish for is more Iorek Byrnison. The entire matter of polar bears was indescribably awesome in the first book. I do like that the witches survived onto the second though. The description of their beauty and flying gives you that kind of yearning for simple pleasures that the best books incite.

In any case, His Dark Materials and continues the trend of children's fantasy having better characterization, recognizable and delightful writing styles, actual mystery in the fantastic and a better understanding of what makes the fantastic so well, fantastic. Inspired by this book, the new Harry Potter and the Diana Wynne Jones, C.S. Lewis, John Christopher and Lloyd Alexander I read earlier in life, I went on an Amazon buying spree and purchased Sorcery & Cecilia, Artemis Fowl, more Diana stuff, including the newer Chrestomanci book, some Edith Nesbit, Eragon, Sabriel and Abarat. I can't wait to dig into these genre again. Long live the REAL fantasy tradition that should have flourished after Tolkien.



Yeah, Kitsune, there's some extremely good young-adult fantasy out there, including for example the Sabrael books by Garth Nix [edit, oh I see you listed this one], but there are scores of superior adult fantasy writers and works that are not only as good or better, but aren't constricting their work to topics suitable for a younger audience. You just haven't read them yet, I guess... admittedly good fantasy is often hard to find hidden in the vast ocean of awfulness that comprises the genre as a whole.

Anyhow, just for example, in no particular order, check out:

Fritz Leiber - Fafhrd & Grey Mouser series
Jack Vance - Lyonesse series, Dying Earth series, Demon Prince series
Roger Zelazny - Lord of Light, Creatures of Light & Darkness, Amber series
Steven Brust - Jhereg series, Jhereg/Dumas pastiches
Ursula K. Le Guin - Earthsea series, The Dispossessed, Changing Planes
James Branch Cabell - Jugen, The Silver Stallion, All About Eve, Cream of the Jest
Gene Wolfe - New Sun series, Long Sun series, Wizard Knight books

All of these are vastly superior to the usual crap. For each author I listed some of their more famous or classic works, but that's not to say there aren't many others by each author that may be as good or better.


I'd also highly recommend Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series (Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, Silver on the Tree). Wonderful books.

For adult fantasy fiction that doesn't read like hackneyed fantasy crap, try anything by Patricia McKillip.


Miramon - You've got excellent taste. It's wonderful to see there's someone else out there who's read Cabell recently. Great author.

Every author on your list is superb. Here are a few more:

Avram Davidson: The Phoenix and the Mirror, Ursus of Ultima Thule (etc)
M. John Harrison: The Viriconium Novels
John Crowley: Little Big, Elsewhere, The Evening Land
Jeff Vandermeer: City of Saints and Madmen
Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
China Mieville: Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council
Clark Ashton Smith: Zothique, Tales of Hyperborea

A good general source of great authors is the web site Great SF and F.


Spoilers, ho! You've been warned.

A lot of people apparently enjoy His Dark Materials, but I'm left feeling kind of like an outsider because I didn't enjoy it. Actually, I enjoyed the first book quite a bit because of how Pullman peeled back the mysteries around his world and intermixed magic with Victorian-era (or so I guessed) technology. The armored bears were great inventions, and I loved the moral ambiguity of Azriel's character.

Things really went south for me in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Pullman introduced world hopping and moved away from what I thought was the main strength of the previous book --Lyra's Oxford and the world around it. Suddenly we were bouncing from place to place and dealing with a cadre of characters, factions, and races that I had trouble keeping straight, much less caring about. As you say, Kitsune, Mrs. Coulter was a strong unifying element throughout it, and she's probably one of the best things about all the books. But she wasn't enough to carry it once the goofball metaphysics started flying. Pullman's plans with Dust, the Authority, and Azriel's war were ambitious and fascinating in concept, but I felt Pullman didn't pull it off for some reason. I just didn't buy how Azriel suddenly and inexplicably had gathered this army full of supernatural beings and high technology. I kept wanting it to end by the time I was halfway through The Amber Spyglass.

Still, I definitely acknowledge that Pullman did something different, despite the cringe-inducing "supposedly lowborn kitchen girl is actually of royal blood and has magical power that save the day!" cliche. And we need more of that out there.


I felt much the same way, I also thought the books became preachy in a somewhat adolescently antichristian way as the series went on.

I would like to put in a word for Robert Irwin's the Arabian Nighmare, and toot the horn of Lord Dunsany, toot.


Amber Spyglass was a big letdown. It read like a half-assed draft instead of a proper conclusion. The spyglass itself was a pretty crappy device, unlike the knife or compass, which were really cool.

I wanted to see a REAL assault on heaven. Instead what we get is some handwaving - "ok, now the war's started - ok, now it's progressed - ok, now it's nearly over".

The ending is fitting, but I've read some pretty good arguments to the effect that it isn't internally consistent with the logic of the universe as Pullman lays it out, and goddamn it those two DESERVE to be happy by that point.


I'm not sure I like your use of the word "superior," particularly when you cite the Earthsea series, which, like His Dark Materials, is both marketed at young adults and also fantastic.

I've read and love a lot of the books on your list, and I read many of them when I, myself, was a "young adult." I wouldn't dismiss Pullman because of his marketing. His Dark Materials is a great and charming series that, while not as good as some of the other series listed in this thread, is quite capable of holding its own with a lot of them.

About the series itself, I agree that The Amber Spyglass is a sort of weak ending. It was set up to be so ambitious that it's hard to imagine quite how he could have pulled off a satisfactory conclusion... I think the temptress needed a stronger and earlier role, the "war" needed to be presented more prominently, etc... but it wasn't a huge letdown. It just didn't seem to live up to its potential.


I definitely agree with Davidson, and I sort of agree with Harrison. Both can be quirky and intricate writers, sometimes not as easy to read as others (for that matter, that's true of Gene Wolfe, too.) But I like them both, especially Davidson's wonderful series of Dr Esterhazy [sp?] stories that was collected in a NESFA edition a few years ago. Harrison has sometimes disappointed me, but he's clearly a very skilled writer of fiction for grownups. Much better technically than say Michael Moorcock, but I'd have to say I enjoy Moorcock more (I mention Moorcock because both he and Harrison are British "New Wave" writers who started writing in the 60s.

I've never read Crowley, Vandermeer or Clarke. I read one of Mieville's books, and while it's interesting, it annoyed me too. I'll give him another try soon. CAS is certainly classic, but I'm not sure I would really put him in the first tier of fantasy writers -- very atmospheric, though, and more skilled a writer than say Robert Howard.

Oh, another writer comes to mind for my list: Tim Powers. I didn't really like the Drawing of the Dark or the Anubis gates, but I greatly enjoyed Last Call.

Oh, oh, one more writer: Jose Luis Borges. Not "genre", of course, but he wrote an awful lot of fantasy, and his translated English is generally superior to most native writers.


I highly recommend reading Crowley's Little, Big. It's a crime Crowley isn't a better known author, as I'm hard pressed to think of someone who writes at a higher level in the english language. Little, Big, which is sort of a fairy story and sort of a generational family tale, is not at all your typical fantasy. But if you liked Borges you'll probably be game for Crowley's intricate world.

Mieville can be frustrating at times. Mainly, I think, because he's really interested in being political but isn't actually good at writing clever political fiction. He's really good at writing ripping adventure yarns with crazy worlds and antagonists, and should stick to that.

Harrison I recommended mainly on the strength of A Storm of Wings... I read Light recently and had your reaction. I thought it was interesting, but I didn't really enjoy it.

Susanna Clarke's single novel is enormously enjoyable as a Regency-era fantasy tale. I really hope she continues to write.

I haven't read Powers... he's on my list somewhere.


I wasn't using "superior" as a comparative to YA writers. However, given two works which are otherwise the same quality, in general I'd rather read the one which has adult main characters, has more complex themes, references and allusions, less cut-and-dried morality, and which suffers from no restrictions on content.

But considering how few really good active writers there are in either the adult or YA fantasy genres, it's not as if all my time is taken up with writers of adult fiction. If everyone in the YA genre was as good as say Garth Nix, I'm sure the "adult" genre would just wither away....


I'm with the crowd who was disappointed by "The Amber Spyglass." In general, I preferred Pullman's "Sally Lockhart" trilogy, which really carried itself well all the way through the end.

It's also interesting to compare them (I just thought of this, and I haven't gone back to double-check the books, so this may be half-baked). In "Dark Materials," Lord Asriel seems to be aiming at a great goal, even if he has to do horrible things to reach it. In the second Sally Lockhart book, the antagonist has exactly the same "ends justify the means" attitude, and Pullman has Sally demolish it.

In fact, from the Lockhart books, I was expecting Lord Asriel to get some sort of comeuppance, and maybe that explains part of my disappointment with the trilogy.



Spoiler for The Amber Spyglass...

Well, he did fall into a bottomless pit.



More details.


Equel? Yuck.


… I don’t know that I actually want more Lyra. (One of my disappointments of the original trilogy is that it started out looking like it was going to be a critique of the Chosen One trope and ended up with Pullman falling for his own creation in the third book.)

What needs more development and attention is the story of Will and his mother (who is treated very shabbily in the third book; her whole plot thread is pretty much shoved aside with a couple of lines.)

And of course what I really want is an entire book about the polar bears.


So this came out last week