The “His Dark Materials” trilogy seems to invariably come up when people are asked to recommend “good” fantasy. Indeed, the series has many of the trappings of the genre: epic storyline, magic, prophecy, adventure in a far-off land, and a protagonist who starts off as low born and eventually finds out that she’s of noble blood. However, it sidesteps cliche by having much of the action take place in an alternate history of our own Earth, in Europe somewhere around the 1800s.
Pullman’s world is an interesting mix of magic, mad science, and theology that sharpens one of the hooks used by good fantasy: world building. Pullman skillfully reveals things about his world –daemons, talking and armor-clad bears, witches, zepelins, and spirits– at just the right pace to keep you interested. It’s pretty imaginative and the non-standard setting puts new twists on even old concepts.
So on one level this book was about adventure and fun, but about two thirds of the way through the first book things snapped into place and I realized that it also has deeper meanings on other levels. Meanings that deal with religion (specifically organized religion), sin, childhood, and what it is to be human. It’s pretty interesting stuff, moreso because one of the main characters is trying to kill God.