Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

Three books for the price of one!

The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
399 pages, 1995; 326 pages, 1997; 518 pages, 2000; Alfred A Knopf Publishing

It has been a while since I have been thrilled while reading a book (or in this case, three books). This trilogy thrilled me. That's not to say it's the best book I've ever read (you'll forgive me if I refer to the three books as one book, just for the sake of grammar), because it's not. It is, however, one of the most exhilarating reading experiences I've ever had. How, then, can it not be the best book I've ever read. Well, it's up there. Sweet Fancy Moses, is this a good book.

The Harry Potter books may get all the publicity, but these books are better. There's a simple reason: they're more complex. I love Harry Potter, but let's face it -- they're kind of simplistic morally. The last book was a little more complex, in conjunction with Harry and the gang growing up, but it's pretty easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Professor Snape and Sirius Black are the only attempts at some kind of ambiguity. Pullman, however, writes a book that children can read that is truly an adult work of literature. It's richer and deeper than the Harry Potter books, and there's more at stake (granted, Rowling's not done with hers).

I hesitate to discuss the plot of these books, since so much of the joy is in discovering what's going on. I will say this: a girl named Lyra, an orphan who lives in Oxford (not the Oxford of our world, but one similar to ours) through the good graces of her mysterious uncle, Lord Asriel. One night she eavesdrops on Lord Asriel speaking to members of the college about a substance called Dust. This leads Lyra into a grand adventure that crosses worlds (into ours, for a while) and involves witches, gypsies, armored bears, small people called Gallivespians, the land of the dead, daemons (a person's soul, basically, which in Lyra's world are separate from the body and take the form of animals), angels, and ghosts. She meets a boy from our world named Will, who has an important role to play in Lyra's adventure (it's really both of their stories, although Will doesn't show up until the second book). Because Lyra comes from a different world, we get nifty little things like the daemons, and zeppelins as the primary mode of air travel, and a Protestant Pope in Geneva, and Tartars in Russia, and other details that, when done right, can make a world alive without forcing it. I'm a sucker for alternate worlds, so this part was very neat. There's also a great deal about dark matter, which is in the science news in our world, and Pullman weaves it nicely into the plot. Pullman packs his books with action and grandness and big dreams and romance, and although there's over a thousand pages in his epic, you zip right through it because it's so wonderful (it took me, what, two weeks to read all three books?). It truly is spectacular.

Ignoring the plot, what makes this book so magnificent is not only the story but the way Pullman draws in many themes that are important in "real" life. He deals with innocence and experience (he acknowledges a debt to W. Blake, so I can reference that) and what makes us innocent or not-so-innocent. It's a reason why this book would probably work well with the "tween" crowd -- kids 10-13 or so. They are dealing with what Lyra and Will, two children on the cusp of puberty, are dealing with. Pullman deals with the transition from child to adolescent beautifully without sugar-coating any of it. The innocent/experienced dichotomy is also part of Pullman's exploration of religion in the book. Religion is a major part of the book (so much so that I'm going to be deliberately vague), and Pullman has several criticisms of it, but it's never polemical and always within the confines of the story. He brings in the theme of innocence when examining the conflicting views of religion in the book, and it deepens the power of his arguments when he's dealing with people instead of abstractions. Another theme he examines is the nature of consciousness and what it means to be a person. There are creatures in the book that are definitely not human but are intelligent, and Pullman looks at what it means to be a thinking being and how it affects how we see the world.

There's also the point I made above about Harry Potter and knowing who the good guys are. In Pullman's books, there are more shades of gray, even though some people are obviously good. Even Lyra and Will, who are the books' heroes, are more complex than Harry and Ron and Hermione. As for the other characters -- they act according to their natures, not necessarily because it's "the right thing to do." Is Lord Asriel a good guy or not? He does some pretty heinous things, but also some noble things. How about Mrs. Coulter? Or Dr. Mary Malone? We learn about these people and we get to decide on our own whether they are good or bad, or a little of both. Pullman never allows a strict moral code get in the way of messy humanity. There are great deeds done in the book, as well as great evil things, as well as petty things, and they all add up to fully realized creations rather than vehicles to tell a story. This is part of what makes these books great.

Ultimately, the trilogy is about power -- the power we have over others, and the power we have over ourselves, and the power we have to change the world. Lyra and Will go on a quest to discover more about themselves, and they actually change over the course of the books. All the other major characters discover new things about themselves and their relationship with the universe. The idea of power runs through the books, and even Lyra and Will have chances to abuse what power they possess. Whether they do or not I'm not going to say, but when it happens, it feels like a choice anyone might be confronted with, even in such a fantastical setting.

Like I said, it's been a while since I've been absolutely thrilled while reading a book. These are ostensibly children's books, but I can't imagine anyone who's not a crotchety old person enjoying them. Of course, I'm a crotchety old person, and I enjoyed them! Check them out and enjoy them yourself!

I read in the paper today that Jack L. Chalker died at the age of 60. One of my favorite books (yes, I have a lot of favorites -- I like to read, so sue me) is The Messiah Choice, which apparently is kind of hard to find these days. If you can find it, read it -- it's about Satan taking over the world! How can you lose?


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