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Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped?
by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]

Movie Does Not Equal Book

Inevitably, it seems, if the book came before the film, you can be sure the book is better. I have no doubt it must be challenging, difficult, and ultimately impossible to do even a near-perfect job translating from one medium to the other, and inevitably the work in the new medium is going to be compared to the original. Book versus film. The first Harry Potter film, for example, was clearly striving to be as faithful to the book as possible. And yet in spite of this -- or perhaps because of it -- the film adaptation lacked some of the soul of the book. (Later Harry Potter films, I think, were more fully alive as they were permitted to be films, rather than trying to slavishly recreate the books.) Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, wonderful as they are, could never be as good as the books. I love those films, but there are still some details Jackson changed from the books that really annoy me -- even though I realize movie does not equal book, and vice versa. Reading the novelization of Star Wars (the first one, Episode IV, long before Lucas lost his mythic vision) was a massive disappointment to me, because it just couldn't conjure the magic of the film. And I made the mistake of seeing The Name of the Rose before I read the book. It's a great film, but in reading it later I just couldn't ever get Sean Connery's voice out of my head. And, by the way, the book is still far better than the movie.

His Dark Materials: Northern Lights/The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), The Amber Spyglass (2000)
Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials - UK
Philip Pullman was born in Norwich in 1946. He was educated in England, Zimbabwe, Australia and Wales, and read English at Exeter College, Oxford. He maintains a keen interest in education, the field in which he worked for many years before becoming a full-time writer more than a decade ago. Pullman is almost certainly best known for the series His Dark Materials; the first book Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in the US) won the Carnegie Medal, one of the most prestigious British children's fiction awards, and The Amber Spyglass won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, which marked the first time this prize was awarded to a children's book. Companion works to His Dark Materials include Lyra's Oxford (2003) and the still unpublished The Book of Dust.

His Dark Materials - US
Pullman's other works include the following: The Haunted Storm (1972), Count Karlstein (1982, his first children's book), Spring-Heeled Jack (1989), The Broken Bridge (1990), The White Mercedes (1992), The Wonderful Story of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp (1993), Clockwork, or, All Wound Up (1995), The Firework-Maker's Daughter (1995), Mossycoat (1998), I was a Rat! or The Scarlet Slippers (1999), Puss in Boots: The Adventures of That Most Enterprising Feline (2000), The Scarecrow and his Servant (2004), as well as the Sally Lockhart books: The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), The Shadow in the North (1986), The Tiger in the Well (1990), and The Tin Princess (1994).

Having learned my lesson from The Name of the Rose, I now try to make a point of reading the book before I see the movie. When I recently saw a trailer for the film adaptation of The Golden Compass I knew it was finally time to dust off my unread copies of His Dark Materials and buckle down to some YA reading. I enjoy a lot of young adult fiction, so it wasn't that aspect that had been preventing me. In fact, and as usual, there was really no good reason for me to avoid reading these books apart from either a) sheer stubbornness on my part (i.e. belligerent resistance to too many people telling me I must read Pullman's masterpiece), or b) they just got lost in the teetering stacks of unread books lying about my house. Or maybe a bit of both.

When I finally did crack open The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights in the original UK edition), I found it to be utterly compelling reading. Before I realized what I was doing, I was into the second book. The very instant I finished reading The Subtle Knife, I got up from my reading chair to find the third volume, The Amber Spyglass, and I was already reading as I walked back down the hall toward my chair only minutes later. So, OK, I guess they really are as good as everyone had been telling me.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, young adult or children's fiction from the UK generally tends to be more, rather than less, sophisticated, and sometimes will refrain from pulling punches. His Dark Materials fits into this category. It may not be the kind of thing you want to blithely hand off to a sensitive 8-year-old. On the other hand, imaginative and literate young adults (or even old adults, for that matter) shouldn't have any trouble deriving full enjoyment from the text.

I'm probably one of about 9 people who hadn't read this work before now, so I don't need to tell you what the story is about. But for the benefit of those other 8 folks, I'll give a very brief overview of what to expect: In a world that is more than suspiciously similar to ours, Lyra is a young girl being raised among the scholars at Jordan College, Oxford, who becomes involved in events that take her on a life-changing journey, involving magic, technology, armoured intelligent bears, flying witches, angels, spectres, ghosts, personal daemons in the form of talking animals, zeppelins, gateways to parallel worlds (including one that almost certainly is ours), war against the heavens, the realm of the dead, villains, heroes, spies, torture, death, love, compassion, betrayal, redemption, difficult decisions, wondrous vistas, and adventure by the bucketful.

The final book is probably slightly less satisfying overall than the first two, although that doesn't mean it isn't good. I felt it had a good solid ending, even if it doesn't all resolve in happily-ever-after. Actually, that's one of the things I liked best about the ending; it feels like a realistic resolution rather than a contrived feel-good ending. You can't expect characters who've gone through as much as these people have gone through to come out the other end unchanged. And they don't.

So what was it about The Amber Spyglass that didn't quite live up to the first two? The war against heaven, particularly in the third book, starts to feel a little heavy-handed at times. It's clear, and clearly indicated in the author's acknowledgments, that Milton's Paradise Lost was an influence on this work. I think Paradise Lost is one of the most beautifully written works in English literature. It's also a bit dense at times. And it's been said many times that in spite of his best intentions, Milton's most interesting character is his Satan -- which rather leaves the reader with an ambiguous feeling about the author's meaning. The war in Pullman's work is against "the Authority" which is a false god that only claimed to be the Creator, even though he didn't create anything (or so we are told). Largely the war is against the authoritarian church, and in Lyra's world the church is an oppressive authority that really warrants rebellion. So even though Pullman does not appear to be directly advocating rebellion against the Christian church in our world, nevertheless I'm sure these books are probably burning on a pyre even as I write this -- it seems there's always someone ready to burn books they haven't read. (Sigh)

The Fall of Ile-Rien: The Wizard Hunters (2003), The Ships of Air (2004), The Gate of Gods (2005)
Martha Wells

The Fall of Ile-Rien
Martha Wells was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1964. She earned a B.A. in Anthropology from Texas A&M University. The Fall of Ile-Rien series is set in the world created for her first published novel, The Element of Fire (1993), a finalist for that year's Compton Crook Award, and a runner-up for the 1994 William Crawford Award, and revisited in The Death of the Necromancer (1998), which was nominated for a Nebula Award. Her other novels are City of Bones (1995) and Wheel of the Infinite (2000), as well as a couple of Stargate Atlantis novels, Reliquary (2006) and Entanglement (2007).
I first read Martha Wells' series, The Fall of Ile-Rien, as they were released. Martha Wells is one of my favourite fantasy writers. Everything I've read of hers (and I've read almost all of her novels) has been worth reading for the characters alone. I would happily read a book wherein nothing happens, as long as it's well written and the characters are engaging. I'm most likely to toss a book aside unfinished if I simply don't care about the characters, no matter how cool the story idea might be. Wells writes her characters brilliantly; she also writes cool stories. And her world of Ile-Rien is her most developed, as it now spans five books, including the Nebula-nominated Death of the Necromancer, which featured prominently on the SF Site Best of the Year list for 1998.

In looking again recently into The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, I was surprised to discover many parallels to His Dark Materials. I thought I had chosen two very different series, completely at random, which had nothing much in common. Apparently my sub-conscious chose for me. Here are some features the two series share: both are trilogies, beginning in worlds that are very similar to our own world of a slightly earlier era but not quite the same, both feature overlapping magic and technology, zeppelins, gates between different worlds, a war spanning the world-gates, a strong female protagonist with a unique and possibly magical heirloom artifact, a charming villain who has most everyone fooled, and both are very character-driven stories with fully developed plotlines. Sounds eerily similar, when I lay it out like that. But really they're about as different as two seemingly similar works can be.

For one thing, Martha Wells' work is not targeted to a younger audience. So what's it about? Well, do you Remember Nicholas Valiarde? If not, it doesn't matter. Even if you've never read any Martha Wells before, she provides enough background in The Wizard Hunters that you can easily catch up as you begin this series. Nicholas Valiarde was an infamous wizard in the city of Ile-Rien. Now his orphaned daughter, Tremaine, a somewhat suicidal playwright, gets caught up in the war effort against the mysterious and inscrutable Gardier, an unknown enemy who rain death and destruction from their air ships. An artifact left to Tremaine by her father may be a key to Ile-Rien's defence against this invasion. In an effort to track the Gardier back to their home base, Tremaine and her companions learn that their enemy have come through a gateway from another world. But that is not the home world of the Gardier. Instead, they discover the Gardier have also begun to invade the people of that world too. They meet up with some unlikely allies, learn to communicate with each other, and discover that in earning some new allies, they have also gained a new and very dangerous enemy.

After the hype (richly deserved, in my opinion) about Death of the Necromancer, I anticipated that The Fall of Ile-Rien series would do quite well. On the contrary, it seems to have come and gone with very little notice. It didn't even stay on the shelves long at my local bookstores. Before the third one was published, the second one had been remaindered. And I never did see The Gate of Gods on the shelves; I had to order it. What happened? The only thing I can think is that the series just wasn't well marketed. Because it's excellent fun reading. It's got plenty of action, adventure, espionage, and skin-of-the-teeth escapes. A gripping story. But ultimately it's the characters that will keep you reading. There's real development in some of the key players, especially Tremaine, and there are people you love to spend time with and people you love to spend time hating. It's exactly the kind of story that deserves to be read and reread. But instead, I suspect it will fall out of print and languish in the annals of the great overlooked.

On the plus side, since The Fall of Ile-Rien doesn't seem destined to be as high profile as it may deserve, it's probably never going to be first on the list of books for the bonfires of the self-righteous.

The Final Analysis

In summary, I don't believe Pullman's His Dark Materials has been over-hyped. It's a terrifically enjoyable series that definitely warrants reading before the movie hits the theatres. (I'm looking forward to it; the trailer I saw looked pretty impressive.) But as for Wells' The Fall of Ile-Rien, it's definitely overlooked. The whole series is still available in mass market paperback. I highly recommend reading them before they go out of print.

Finally, please don't burn any books you haven't read.

Copyright © 2007 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is an avid reader who has lived most of his life in the frozen wastes of Canada and yet has never been cold enough to be tempted to burn a book. In addition to the above, over the past month his reading has included: other YA fantasy fiction, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (2007); some SF, Blindsight by Peter Watts (2006); some short story collections, Dogged Persistence by Kevin J. Anderson (2001) and The Double Shadow by Clarke Ashton Smith (1933); some graphic interpretations of classic horror stories, Spookhouse: Book Two by Scott Hampton (2004); and a bit of history to keep him honest, Essential Histories: The Punic Wars, 264-146 BC by Nigel Bagnall (2002) and Roman Warfare by Adrian Goldsworthy (2000). [Come to think of it, there's no one actually willing to vouch for his honesty. Plus, those history books were pretty lightweight.]

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