Published in 40 countries, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass – has graced the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Book Sense, and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists.
The Golden Compass forms the first part of a story in three volumes. The first volume is set in a world like ours, but different in many ways. The second volume is set partly in the world we know. The third moves between many worlds.
In The Golden Compass, readers meet 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua, a precocious orphan growing up within the precincts of Jordan College in Oxford, England. It quickly becomes clear that Lyra's Oxford is not precisely like our own—nor is her world. In Lyra's world, everyone has a personal dæmon, a lifelong animal familiar. This is a world in which science, theology and magic are closely intertwined.
The Subtle Knife is the second part of the trilogy that began with The Golden Compass. That first book was set in a world like ours, but different. This book begins in our own world.
In The Subtle Knife, readers are introduced to Will Parry, a young boy living in modern-day Oxford, England. Will is only twelve years old, but he bears the responsibilities of an adult. Following the disappearance of his explorer-father, John Parry, during an expedition in the North, Will became parent, provider and protector to his frail, confused mother. And it's in protecting her that he becomes a murderer, too: he accidentally kills a man who breaks into their home to steal valuable letters written by John Parry. After placing his mother in the care of a kind friend, Will takes those letters and sets off to discover the truth about his father.
The Amber Spyglass brings the intrigue of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife to a heartstopping close, marking the third and final volume as the most powerful of the trilogy. Along with the return of Lyra, Will, Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, Dr. Mary Malone, and Iorek Byrnison the armored bear, The Amber Spyglass introduces a host of new characters: the Mulefa, mysterious wheeled creatures with the power to see Dust; Gallivespian Lord Roke, a hand-high spy-master to Lord Asriel; and Metatron, a fierce and mighty angel. And this final volume brings startling revelations, too: the painful price Lyra must pay to walk through the land of the dead, the haunting power of Dr. Malone's amber spyglass, and the names of who will live—and who will die—for love. And all the while, war rages with the Kingdom of Heaven, a brutal battle that—in its shocking outcome—will reveal the secret of Dust.
I began to write this novel with little sense of the plot, even less notion of the theme, and only the vaguest idea of the characters. I'm convinced that that's the way to do it. I tried to work out the plan of a novel once, when I was young, ahead of writing it. It was an excellent plan. It took me months and covered page after page, and in the end I was so fed up with the damn thing I threw it away and started a quite different novel with no preparation at all, which came out much better. I suppose these things are partly temperamental; I know that some excellent writers make a great thing of planning every book before they write it; but it doesn't work for me.
One thing such a technique prevents is what I think every long book must have if I'm not to go mad writing it, and that's the element of surprise. I had no idea what Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear, would say when Lyra first came face to face with him. His vulnerability to strong drink was a huge surprise. I knew there was going to be a boy called Will, but his reason for running away and thus meeting Lyra was a complete mystery to me until it happened. As for Lee Scoresby, I was as ignorant of his existence as the gyptians themselves the sentence before he turned up. These surprises are pleasant and exciting; they feel like a kind of reward. If I knew they were coming I wouldn't enjoy them at all.
In the first sentence above, I mentioned something I called the theme. By that I mean what the book is about
, in some fundamental sense. I've heard that some writers decide on a theme first, and then make up some characters and a plot to exemplify it. They seem to get on all right, but again, it wouldn't work for me. A book, especially a long book like His Dark Materials
, has to have some sort of theme, or else you'll be working for a long time (this story took me seven years) in a moral vacuum. But that doesn't mean you have to decide what the theme is. If you're working as seriously as you know how to, for a matter of years, then a theme will emerge whether you want it to or not. It'll be something you think very important. It might be the most important thing you know. Once you know what it is, you can shape the story more precisely to help it show up, but it's a mistake to rely on the theme to lead the story for you. I think I did that in a couple of places in this book, and it's the worse for it. But there we are, we're never too old to learn. Next time I shall remember: the story should lead, and the theme will emerge in its own time and its own way. Besides, if you want to write something perfect, write a haiku. Anything longer is bound to have a few passages that don't work as well as they might.
So here is a story that was the best I could do at the time, written with all the power and all the love I had, about the things I think most important in the world. I think it was worth writing. I hope you think it's worth reading.
Philip PullmanFrom the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Copyright © 2011 by Philip Pullman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About Philip Pullman
“Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn't be human beings at all.”—Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman is the acclaimed author of the His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. His other books for children and young adults include Count Karlstein and a trilogy of Victorian thrillers featuring Sally Lockhart. The Golden Compass, the first of Pullman's His Dark Materials triology, won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Fiction Prize.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I started telling stories as soon as I knew what stories were. I was fascinated by them: that something could happen and be connected to another thing, and that someone could put the two things together and show how the first thing caused the second thing, which then caused a third thing. I loved it. I love it still.
I grew up at a time when TV wasn’t as important as it is now. In fact, part of my childhood was spent in Australia at a time when that country didn’t even have TV so a lot of my early experiences with stories came from the radio, which is a wonderful medium. I remember listening to gangster serials, and cowboy serials, and best of all: “Faster than a speeding bullet—more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s SUPERMAN!”
Superman on the radio was exciting enough, but when I first saw a Superman comic, it changed my life. Soon afterward I discovered Batman, too, whom I loved even more. I had to argue with my parents about them, though, because they weren’t “proper” reading. I suppose what persuaded them to let me carry on reading comics was the fact that I was also reading books just as greedily, and that I was good at spelling; so obviously the comics weren’t harming me too much.
My favorite stories for a long time were ghost stories. I used to enjoy frightening myself and my friends with the tales I read, and making up stories about a tree in the woods we used to call the Hanging Tree, creeping past it in the dark and shivering as we looked at the bare, sinister outline against the sky. I still enjoy ghost stories, even though I don’t think I believe in ghosts anymore.
I was sure that I was going to write stories myself when I grew up. It’s important to put it like that: not “I am a writer,” but rather “I write stories.” If you put the emphasis on yourself rather than your work, you’re in danger of thinking that you’re the most important thing. But you’re not. The story is what matters, and you’re only the servant, and your job is to get it out on time and in good order.
The most valuable thing I’ve learned about writing is to keep going, even when it’s not coming easily. You sometimes hear people talk about something called “writer’s block.” Did you ever hear a plumber talk about plumber’s block? Do doctors get doctor’s block? Of course they don’t. They work even when they don’t want to. There are times when writing is very hard, too, when you can’t think what to put next, and when staring at the empty page is miserable toil. Tough. Your job is to sit there and make things up, so do it.
As well as keeping going, there are many other things I’ve learned about this craft, and some of them came to me when I was teaching. What I enjoyed most in that difficult and valuable profession was telling stories, telling folk tales and ghost stories and Greek myths, over and over, until I knew them as well as I knew my own life.
And in doing so, I learned some of the laws of a story. Not rules - rules can be changed. “Smoking Permitted Here” can become “No Smoking” overnight, if people decide smoking is a bad thing. But laws such as the law of gravity can’t be changed: Gravity is there whether we approve of it or not. And so are the laws of a story. A story that is unresolved will not satisfy—that’s a law. If a scene does not advance the story, it will get in the way—that’s another law. You must know exactly where your story begins—that’s a third. And so on.
One strange thing about stories is that you sometimes know how long they’re going to be, even before you’ve begun thinking about them. With His Dark Materials, the trilogy of which the first part is The Golden Compass, I knew from the very start—even before I had a main character in mind, and long before I knew what might happen to her—that this story would be 1,200 pages long. That was the size of it. I knew, too, that I was going to enter a world I hadn’t known before: a world of fantasy. Previously, all of my books had been realistic. When I began writing it, I discovered a kind of freedom and excitement I’d never quite felt before. And that is one of the joys of writing: You constantly encounter new experiences.
I live in Oxford now, and I do my writing in a shed at the bottom of the garden. If the young boy I used to be could have looked ahead in time and seen the man I am today, writing stories in his shed, would he have been pleased? I wonder. Would that child who loved Batman comics and ghost stories approve of the novels I earn my living with now? I hope so. I hope he’s still with me. I’m writing them for him.
THE GOLDEN COMPASS
—Winner of the Carnegie Medal
—An American Booksellers Book of the Year (ABBY) Award Winner
“As always, Pullman is a master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension. This glittering gem will leave readers of all ages eagerly awaiting the next installment of Lyra’s adventures.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly
THE SUBTLE KNIFE
—An ALA Best Books for Young Adults
“More than fulfilling the promise of The Golden Compass, this second volume starts off at a heart-thumping pace and never slows down. . . . The grandly exuberant storytelling is sure to enthrall.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly
“The intricacy of the plot is staggering. . . . There is no doubt that the work is stunningly ambitious, original, and fascinating.”—Starred, The Horn Book Magazine
“The character development as well as the relentless pace . . . make this a resoundingly successful sequel. . . . It will leave readers desperate for the next installment.”—Starred, Booklist
THE AMBER SPYGLASS
—A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
“Pullman has created the last great fantasy masterpiece of the twentieth century.”—The Cincinnati Enquirer
“Absorbing. . . . Like Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling, [Pullman] invents a world filled with strange divinations and wordplays.”—Newsweek
“A literary masterpiece . . . [that] caps the most magnificent fantasy series since The Lord of the Rings and puts Harry Potter to shame. . . . A page-turning story that builds to a powerful finish.”—Oregonian
“Impossible to put down, so firmly and relentlessly does Pullman draw you into his tale. . . . [A] gripping saga pitting the magnetic young Lyra Belacqua and her friend Will Parry against the forces of both Heaven and Hell.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I WAS A RAT!
“Phillip Pullman's tale is fast and clever.”—The New York Times Book Review
“In this deliciously gothic thriller there are enough demon huntsmen, evil guardians, and brooding castles to please even the most desensitized reader.”—Starred, School Library Journal
“A welcome diversion . . . [that is] dashing, sparkling, and wildly over the top.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly