His Dark Materials Trilogy: The Golden Compass / The Subtle Knife / The Amber Spyglass - Philip Pullman When I first read The Golden Compass, the other books had not yet been published. I was excited about the trilogy, but then real life intruded and I didn't read the other books until now.

The Golden Compass is the best of the bunch, and if not for the ending (which demands a sequel) and a discussion of castrati (more on that later) I'd recommend it as a stand-alone young adult novel. It's well-plotted, exciting, and well-written. But it's also very clearly part of a trilogy, and unfortunately, the story-telling decreases in quality as the books progress. By the end of The Amber Spyglass I found it hard to care what happened because it had become so ridiculous.

The thing that Pullman does rather well in The Amber Spyglass is to manage a number of different story lines set in different worlds. Many authors do not handle multiple story lines nearly as well. But that's pretty much the only redeeming quality of The Amber Spyglass. He changes peoples' characters abruptly, he voids operational rules he's spent a great deal of time constructing, and keeps changing the focus of the plot (there's this big THING that has to happen and all the universes will instantaneously change, but then it happens and this other big THING should be our focus because when it happens everything will change, but then it happens and really we need to devote all the energies of all the armies of all the worlds to doing this other big THING, or we could just get her to do it). Gah.

I was very curious to see how Pullman's anti-Church stance played out in the books, having read several reviews which focused on that aspect, or which compared Pullman's world view to that of C.S. Lewis. I was rather surprised to find a puling screed instead of a well-argued construct. He lashes out against the Church in ways that seem very childish rather than designed to convince a child/young adult.

I don't think we should necessarily hide young people from the more hideous aspects of our history, but casually throwing in an explanation of castrati as a way of showing how awful the Church is seems both heavy-handed and unnecessary. I would have appreciated something more nuanced, and comparatively, C.S. Lewis is practically translucent. The story of how a nun decides to give up her vocation, turn her back on the Church, and focus on science would be an interesting story for young people, and an opportunity for them to think about their beliefs and science and religion and how they fit together (or don't). Instead Pullman turns this into something almost smarmy, and turns the focus away from Church, religion, and science.

I was not impressed. I'd give the first book four stars if it could stand alone, though.