Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Philip Pullman

Clockwork, or All Wound Up
by Philip Pullman
Recommended Age: 12+

The author of His Dark Materials brings us this short, award-winning tale of horror, in which a desperate clockmaker’s apprentice accepts an offer of help from a devilish doctor, and a sweet innkeeper’s daughter struggles to help an innocent little boy who has something seriously wrong inside him.

It begins in a German tavern in the days when clocks ran on gears, springs, and pendulums, rather than quartz crystals and electronic timers. A community gathers to hear the local novelist read his latest spooky tale, but when a sinister character steps out of its pages into the room, the storyteller runs for it. A grim fairy tale about a prince who would do anything for an heir collides with the macabre business of a deadly clockwork-knight, and an apprentice’s corrupt ambition, to form one hair-raising short story. If you want a tale full of creepy-crawlies and gruesome surprises, let Clockwork wind you up.

The Firework-Maker's Daughter
by Philip Pullman
Recommended Age: 12+

This short story from the author of I Was a Rat! and Clockwork takes place in an unnamed kingdom, where a girl named Lila has been raised by her firework-maker father. She wants to follow in his footsteps, but he thinks a girl’s place is to get married. Meanwhile, her best friend Chulak is planning to run away with the king’s talking white elephant, Hamlet, whom Chulak takes out for exercise.

One day Chulak tricks Lila’s father into telling him the secret to becoming a firework-maker. As soon as she hears about it, Lila set off for the volcano where the Fire Fiend is to give her the royal sulfur she needs. Then Lalchand, the firework-maker, tells Chulak the other part of the secret: without magic water from the Goddess of the Emerald Lake, Lila will be burned to a crisp! Chulak and Hamlet immediately run away, racing to get the water and bring it to Lila before it is too late.

Though their journey through the jungle includes humorous encounters with a group of hapless would-be pirates, etc., the best part of the story takes place when Lila returns and finds her father under arrest for stealing the king’s elephant. The king offers Lalchand a chance to live – but only if he wins a firework contest against brilliant craftsmen from Germany, Italy, and America.

Here is a story that sizzles and pops with excitement, humor, mystery, and suspense. The courage and friendship of Lila, Chula, and Hamlet are both enjoyable and uplifting, and the solution to Lila’s quest may provoke some serious thought and discussion.

His Dark Materials Trilogy
by Philip Pullman
Recommended Age: 14+

At the urgent request of many, many Book Trolley visitors, I feel compelled to put in a word or three about Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy, a teen-oriented fantasy series that includes the books The Northern Lights (a.k.a. The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. These stories bring together a boy from our world (?) and a girl from a parallel world in which the Reformation, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution never happened and the Church reigns supreme. They come together across the dimensions to fight against the forces of darkness in the heavenly places... or to be moved about like pawns on a cosmic battlefield between God and the devil. Who will win? Will the second fall turn out like the first?

Lyra's world is very interesting in its similarities and differences to our own. One of the master-strokes of the concept is that everyone in her world has a "daemon," i.e. a companion animal that talks to them and physically represents their soul, so that they are joined together for life. And until puberty, when the daemon's animal form is fixed, it can actually change into different shapes according to its mood. So in Lyra's world, no one is ever really alone, and everyone knows himself or herself in a very interesting way. And a sinister plot to sever unwanted children from their daemons propels Lyra into the center of a great spiritual warfare, where she is joined by a boy named Will who has fled from his world with a murder on his conscience. And with Lyra's sinister mother maneuvering from one side, and her enigmatic father from the other, and a lapsed nun playing the role of the Serpent in Eden, and mind-destroying monsters, angels, armored bears, and other astonishing beings abroad, absolutely anything can happen up to and including a change of administration in heaven.

The popular demand for a review of these books indicates that they are among the most popular books among people who also enjoy the Harry Potter books. And from my own experience I may add that Pullman is a very gifted and daring writer, and there is no getting around the fact that His Dark Materials is breathtakingly original work.

However, I can give only a very guarded recommendation for this series. I am sure many of you will disagree with my opinion, but I am sure that you are wise enough to bear in mind that I can only give you my opinion here, and that's what you came to the Book Trolley to read. So please, don't all of you jump down my throat for saying this. For in spite of Pullman's great talent and strong vision in these series, I have two quibbles.

First, I agree with another reviewer before me who noted that the quality of the series seems to diminish as it goes along. The Golden Compass is the strongest part of the trilogy, and each successive book is simply less entertaining, in my opinion. Your opinion may differ; that is your right. I certainly don't want to tell you what to think, or suggest that you should just take my word for it and not make up your own mind. But I believe that many who read this whole trilogy will agree with me in the end.

Second, I want to caution young Christians and their parents about these books. You may want to read them together and discuss them together, because they raise thought-provoking issues about God, sin, the history and character of the Church, angels, good and evil, and Christianity in general. My personal reaction to these books, especially as the sequence played out, is that Pullman is a very angry man who hates the Church, and that The Amber Spyglass in particular is a thinly disguised attack on Christian morals, doctrine, and organized religion.

I do not dispute that evil things have been done in history, in the name of God and the established church, nor am I saying that because of the way Pullman propounds his views, no one should read these books. I am the last person to say such things, after putting so much on the line as a conservative Christian pastor to defend good books like Harry Potter from censorship by fundamentalist fanatics. But I ask that all who read these books, do so with their critical-thinking caps on, and don't simply accept the point of view that Pullman puts across. Frankly, I believe his views are wrong.

And I want to warn you that many sincere, concerned Christians may be very uncomfortable reading these books. You pick them up expecting a cosmic fantasy-adventure amid interesting parallel worlds, with modern and medieval elements mixed together... and you gradually realize that you have never had your faith so directly and belligerently confronted; you have never seen your morality so thoroughly turned upside down; and you have never seen everything you hold to be sacred and true, subjected to such hostile treatment in a work of fantasy-fiction. Some may call it profound or daring. Some may simply shake their heads at the preachy bits. For me, it spoiled the magic and ruined the fun.

The first book in this trilogy, originally titled Northern Lights, won the 1995 Carnegie Medal. [EDIT: This was my most controversial review ever. I got hundreds of responses from readers, divided approx. 50:50 between total agreement and angry denunciation. By the way, my film review of The Golden Compass is here.]

I Was a Rat!
by Philip Pullman
Recommended Age: 10+

If the name Philip Pullman means anything to you, most likely it is for the His Dark Materials trilogy, of which the titles are The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Due to the, to me, objectionable religious nature of that trilogy, which I have read, I have trouble recommending them. However, Pullman has written several other books, including one about Spring Heeled Jack, a fabled demon/monster/human prodigy that was famous in 19th-century England - a creature or person who could literally leap over a tall building with a single bound. The blurb on that book indicates that it views Spring Heeled Jack from the premise that he was the original "superhero." That book, however, I have not read.

From that same imagination, though, comes I Was A Rat! - whose cover suggests the sort of confession printed in tabloid magazines. And indeed, there is a running theme of yellow journalism in the book, including several "front pages" reproduced as the story goes on, mainly having to do with a Charles-and-Di-type royal wedding, and a sinister monster captured in a sewer and put on trial for extermination.

The sinister monster is actually an 8-or-9-year-old boy, physically speaking, who by a series of misadventures (of which he is entirely innocent) falls into the hands of the authorities. Due to a gonzo mixture of tabloid journalism and existentialist philosophy, he is mistaken for some kind of sub-human and dangerous creature (though he hasn't done anything more violent than biting someone's finger). Whenever he tries to talk, everyone ignores him, pretending he's just making animal noises that their minds erroneously interpret as human speech. Ignore appearances, the philosophy says. And, of course, being exterminated is the most frightening thing you can threaten this particular boy with, because until a short while ago, he was a rat.

Or so he says, and he's not the kind of little boy who tells lies.

Could he be mixed up in the head? Maybe. When he shows up at the door of a humble cobbler and his washer-woman wife, one night, they take him under their wing and try to help him find out who he belongs to. But the lost child office, the orphanage, the police, the hospital, and the school all prove unhelpful, then a series of unsavory characters from the Philosopher Royal, to a carnival huckster, to a ring of juvenile burglars, try to exploit him for their own selfish purposes; and the next thing you know, the old cobbler and his wife have to save "our little boy" from being put down like a wild animal. And the only one who really knows the truth about him...is the Cinderella-like princess who wished upon a star, and found out that when you get your wish, you're stuck with the consequences.

It's the familiar Cinderella tale told again from a very unusual angle. Also a very witty, smart, and grown-up story for kids. And let no one say that I hold a grudge. Little as I care for His Dark Materials, I do recommend I Was a Rat!

The Ruby in the Smoke
by Philip Pullman
Recommended Age: 14+

Some time ago, I caved into pressure to write a review of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy. I hadn't wanted to write about it, because I regard The Book Trolley as my own personal "book recommendations column," and I didn't particularly care to recommend His Dark Materials. What I finally wrote brought me more notoriety than all my other writings put together. Years later I still hear from people who either understood me perfectly, or didn't understand me at all - and of each group there are those who appreciate what I wrote and those who don't. I'm afraid I let everyone down, because that review gave many people the idea that I was on a crusade to make children's literature safe for Fundamentalist Christians; and they either turned away in disgust, or had their hopes dashed when they read my other reviews.

I decided to show that bygones are bygones, and give Philip Pullman another chance. Perhaps my legions of disappointed readers will give me another chance as well! So I started with The Ruby in the Smoke, the first book in the Sally Lockhart Trilogy.

Sally Lockhart is a very unusual young woman, given the world in which she lives: the world of the British Empire under Queen Victoria. Raised by her widower father, an army captain and later partner in a shipping firm, Sally has few of the traditionally feminine accomplishments (such as embroidery, music, and French) and many decidedly non-traditional ones (such as bookkeeping and shooting a pistol). She is also heir to a secret so deep even she knows nothing about it, except for a few cryptic hints. Nevertheless she is in grave danger from the moment she asks a member of her late father's firm about "the Seven Blessings," and the man's only answer is to drop dead of a heart attack in front of her.

The next thing Sally knows, she has run away from her prim aunt and joined the unconventional household of an art photographer and his actress sister; she has found an admirer in a cockney office boy named Jim, a deadly enemy in a local crime boss named Mrs. Holland, and an adventure full of mystery and danger, involving not only the street thugs of London but the aftershocks of a tragedy in India, a murder in the East Indies, and the moral morass of the British government's complicity in the opium trade. And before Sally can be free of the dangers that surround her, she must face a memory that only the evil influence of opium can unlock.

I must admit that I enjoyed this outing. Pullman does have a flair for action, dialect, and historical color. He can conjure a three-dimensional world of warrens and wharves through which your imagination can run, its bootheels clattering on the cobblestones. He also likes to create characters living on or near the outermost edge of socially acceptable behavior - the bad ones being distinguished from the good by which side of the line they live on. It makes you desperately want to find out what these people do next, whether the good ones will continue to be good, and what bad things will happen to them another time. Despair not: the trilogy continues in The Shadow in the North and The Tiger in the Well. Pullman also wrote a book featuring some of this trilogy's characters, titled The Tin Princess. Once I had read Book One, I, for one, could not resist the temptation of buying the other three!

So, are we all friends again?

[EDIT: The rest of the Sally Lockhart series remains on my "getting around to it" shelf.]

The Scarecrow and His Servant
by Philip Pullman
Recommended Age: 10+

This book by the author of The Firework-Maker's Daughter and The Ruby in the Smoke combines a fairy-tale concept with elements of the picaresque novel. That is to say, it presents a hero from humble origins, making his way through a corrupt world in a series of funny, ironic adventures. Seemingly set in Italy around the time of the Napoleonic wars, this story pokes fun at the foibles of people in an age quite different from our own - but not so different that we don't feel the satire poking at us!

The Scarecrow of the title - Lord Scarecrow to you - comes to life one stormy night, and immediately sets out to make his fortune. From the first step of his journey, he is followed by a loyal and honest boy named Jack, whose wits are often the only thing between Lord Scarecrow and disaster. In hair-raising encounter after encounter, Jack and his stuffed-shirt master remain true to each other, while a sinister lawyer dogs their steps. The time finally comes when Jack's loyalty is repaid, and the Scarecrow saves the life and makes the fortune of his servant.

This story has cut-throat bandits, temperamental actors, romance, magic, a military battle, talking birds, and a courtroom scene. It is also casually, almost innocently silly, as when the lovestruck Scarecrow declares that he feels "just like an onion." Who could ask for more?

Charming, touching, extravagantly goofy, The Scarecrow and His Servant is a timelessly satisfying tale that I think readers, young and old, will love and admire even after many titles on The Book Trolley fall out of favor. What I'm saying is: Behold, a classic!

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