Reviews: His Dark Materials/UnLunDun

I read these two (four) books in rapid succession and was struck by parallels between the aims of both stories and their relative success in accomplishing them. In that circumstance it only seems to make sense to review them together and to compare the two since in many ways they deal with broadly similar themes and both are subversive children’s fiction and are, supposedly, aimed at children.As an irascible old lefty atheist the appeal of both books to me should be instantly recognisable. China Mieville, author of UnLunDun has a strong thread of working class leftist values running through all his work from the squalid celebration of New Crobuzon to the more obvious joy of street culture present in King Rat. Meanwhile, Philip Pullman comes from a different rebellious tradition and from the loftier heights of academia, Oxford and the comfortable middle class.

Comparing the two approaches to a similar goal has, I think, been fruitful.

Synopsis: His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials is made up of a trilogy of books, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It follows the adventures of Lyra Belaqua, a girl incongruously brought up amongst the academics of an alternative Oxford, as she travels between worlds, makes powerful friends and, finally, helps kill (or more properly ‘euthanase’) god and thereby frees everyone in the universe to be self determining and responsible for their own actions. All the while she is pursued by forces intent on stopping her all of them in the service of this religious tyranny and most particularly The Magisterium, a sort of Catholic Church dialed up to eleven (or turned down to five, depending on how good your understanding of religious history is).

It has been called the Anti-Narnia.

Synopsis: UnLunDun
UnLunDun also follows the adventures of a special child and travel between alternate universes. Zanna and Deeba, the two female heroes of the book, slip through the cracks into an alternate London existing on the flipside of the real one, undergo a great many trials and adventures and, in a twist to how these things normally turn out it all goes horribly wrong and nothing turns out quite as has been planned, foretold, or spoken of in prophecy. Along the way we meat a huge number of puns and an alternative London that while it owes a lot to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere has been huffing at the bag of paint one or two extra times.

Review: His Dark Materials
As a dutiful and proud member of the ‘New Atheists’ I should be all over His Dark Materials. My allergy to hype prevented me from reading the books when more fuss was being made about them, the same as it has prevented me going within fifty yards of Harry Potter without a stick to beat the fanboys away with but having done my duty and seen the film – I felt I had to to offset the religious bruhaha going on about it – I thought I’d buy the rest of the books as I quite liked the film, even though it was a bit confused.

HDM (as it shall hereafter be abbreviated) is an accomplished set of books but it is not really a set of childrens’ books like the Narnia Chronicles to which it is so often compared. These are dense, difficult novels that really should be labelled ‘young adult’, that nebulous 12-16 range that publishers have, though they could equally be called fully adult novels. They aren’t as simplistic or accessible as the Narnia novels and I’d place them somewhere above The Dark is Rising in terms of reader level.

I thought the film was confused because it had been condensed but, even with the extra capacity that a book has the story is still quite confused and only really, finally, settles into its groove by the third novel. It simply flings too many ideas and incidents together at once to be coherent in the first novel, right the way through to about halfway through the second novel. Elements are wonderful, the armoured bears, the characterisation of Mrs Coulter and the realisation of the worlds, the idea of a ‘Daemon’, a guiding spirit, is also a wonderful literary device as it always ensures that there is someone or something to whom a part of the plot can be expounded upon – similar to a Dr Who companion.

I wasn’t won over though, overall, and I’ll explain why.

I was fortunate enough to read the Narnia novels when I was too young and too unknowing of specific Christian dogmas to realise I was being hit over the head with the ideas of Christianity. To that end C.S. Lewis’ attempt to brainwash me through his fiction utterly failed and I enjoyed the novels for what they were, lovely, wonderful fantasy fiction. Right up until The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle where he seemed to finally get too heavy handed and obvious and the novels became obnoxious rather than whimsical.

Perhaps I’m missing something by approaching HDM in an older and more cynical frame of mind but, where Narnia presented light and whimsical fantasy with a positive message (however much I might disagree with it) HDM was too unrelentingly negative. Rather than presenting the alternatives in a positive light it seemed to concentrate on bashing from the moustache twirling villainy of the Magisterium to the characterisation of the angels, Metatron and The Authority (god). It felt like this was missing a trick as it would, perhaps, have been more effective to demonstrate the bad things that come from the best of intentions in these circumstances. There was only a nod to this and then it was lost. There’s a lot more positive things to be said from an unbeliever’s point of view and I felt these were lost in the felt need to criticise, to be anti-Narnia rather than pro Pullman’s own ideas and ideology.

Another observation, rather than a complaint per se, is that this is NOT an atheistic series of books, despite the hue and cry from hysterical Christians in the southern USA, shaking their jowls at the very thought. How can it be atheistic? It has souls for the love of probability. Souls, magic, witches, alchemy, angels, god and a pantheistic idea of a self-aware universe! It might invoke rebellion against many of these ideas or a different interpretation of them but it is by no means an atheistic book, no matter what is said about it. Frankly, I was disappointed and expected something far more effective.

Overall this is a confused book with punctuated elements of genius. In my opinion it fails as a work of subversive children’s literature and Roald Dahl must be rotating in his grave at a considerable number of RPM. An upper middle class girl? A child of prophecy? With a special mother and father? Who falls in love with a special boy and all the rest of it? Far too staid, normal, predictable and ineffective to truly be a subversive work and Lyra’s simply too obnoxious and spoiled a brat to ever really empathise with.

Review: UnLunDun
UnLunDun is a fair whack of a book at 520 pages of large type, with illustrations (in the hardback edition) but doesn’t compare to the wordy weight of HDM. Nor does it need to. UnLunDun is economic with its language and even though it really tells two stories it clips along at a fair old pace and never loses sight of continuing its narrative. The book is rife with puns and plays with language in a particularly pleasing way to the point where ‘bling’, ‘diss’, ‘leary’ and ‘brer’ become characters as much as they are words.

UnLunDun plays with your preconceptions in a wonderfully amusing way, the chosen one turns out not to be so chosen after all, the wise old men turn out to be utterly wrong, the seeming hero turns out to be an egotistical idiot and it is the ordinary people, the unchosen, the unimportant and the forgotten that turn out to be the real heroes – just like in real life.

UnLunDun is a book with great messages, that ordinary people matter, that you shouldn’t trust authority or scripture but yourself instead. It also carries environmental messages and a lot about the importance of friendship, trust and looking out for each other. All of this is presented in a positive way through the surreality of the encounters of Deeba and Zanna and it is done in a way that isn’t patronising or inaccessible.

Start to finish UnLunDun was a pleasure to read and left me with a real and genuine smile on my face, any child of mine is going to have this read to them several times as soon as they’re old enough it’s that good. What more ringing endorsement could I give?

Comparing the two stories there’s no question in my mind that UnLunDun is far and away the better story. It confounds expectations and tradition, it carries the sort of subversive messages that the best rebellious children’s fiction does and it does the tradition proud. HDM is, in comparison, far more conventional with the heroine who is both privileged and special, a Disney Princess with grubby knees and a snottier attitude. UnLunDun carries the more positive message that you don’t need to be special, chosen or privileged to change things for the better, that you’re not helpless and that things can be accomplished together, not as a wilful individual dictating things to everyone else around you.

His Dark Materials
Style: 3
Substance: 4
Overall: 3.5

Style: 5
Substance: 4
Overall: 4.5

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