June 2, 2018
Hugo Reading 2018: The Book of Dust, by Philip Pullman
First off, let me say that I came into this book cold--I've read none of the previous books that make up His Dark Materials. I mention this because a lot of reviews I've read reference the other books. The impression I'm getting is that you can't really appreciate this book unless you've read the other three (or however many) and maybe this is so. Unfortunately, this makes me give this book more than a slight sideways glance, because I've always thought books should stand on their own, without having to depend on any previous narrative, and a skilled author will work to make sure the reader is able to follow along.
That does not happen in this book. In particular, the worldbuilding and to a lesser degree the characterizations are simply...lacking. To be blunt, a lot of the worldbuilding makes no damn sense, particularly the idea of "daemons" (which are apparently physical, fleshly manifestations of each person's subconscious and/or id). This is so much a central part of the story you can't ignore it, but it irritated me to no end that not one character asked where in the hell these "daemons" came from, why everyone has them, and whether they are good or bad. One can argue that this is simply a facet of this alternate England and Earth, just as the existence of fairies, London river gods, enchanted islands of forgetting, and a complicated thirty-six-sided contraption called an "alethiometer" that supposedly foretells the future, or something, are other aspects of this alternate Earth. The characters know this and accept it, and therefore, in the interests of the story, the reader doesn't need any gratuitous infodumping. Well, maybe the characters know what's going on, but this reader most certainly did not, and sorely wished for a bit of infodumping along the way.
This book is written in what seems to be a classical English style, which is to say a distant, somewhat omniscient viewpoint. Most of the time we're in eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead's head (and I don't know any English boys, but Malcolm doesn't resemble any eleven-year-old I've ever met; to note just one plot point, he beats someone to death with his canoe paddle, as professionally as any master assassin), but the narrative is rather chilly and remote, and the characters suffer for it. The pacing is slow, deliberate and methodical, with an almost painful plodding set-up for the first half of the book. The author is skilled enough that he managed to hold my attention until the flood came and all hell broke loose, but those chapters really could have been cut in half without losing much of the story. The ending also leaves much to be desired, as nothing is resolved and the story just comes to a screeching unpleasant halt, followed by the Three Dread Words: "To be continued."
In short, nothing about this book inspires me to read on, not even what happens when Lyra grows up. Sorry, Malcolm. I did feel for your brave little canoe's sacrifice, but it wasn't enough.