Parents be forewarned: The audio book trilogy I'm about to recommend may raise more questions than answers. But if you – and your children over 12 – are willing to grapple with such philosophical queries as: What does it mean to have faith? and, Does growing up mean living the storyline that's been scripted for you or writing your own?, then by all means pop the set of CDs that make up this trilogy into your vehicle's player and hit the road.
Bottom line? You won't be disappointed. In fact, you may even regret reaching your destination. (It's tough to hit pause in the middle of this story without first finding out what happens.)
Philip Pullman's trio of novels – "The Golden Compass," "The Subtle Knife," and "The Amber Spyglass," also referred to as the "His Dark Materials" trilogy – caused no small stir when the first title hit bookstores over a decade ago. Since then, the books have provoked heated theological discussions and endless chatter among children's lit aficionados, and sold over a million copies in Britain alone. There is also a movie version of the first novel (with a cast including Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Kevin Bacon) scheduled for release this December.
Together all three novels provide an excellent adventure story that manages to be compelling even as it deals with complex, nuanced themes.
Pullman also navigates the male-female divide with ease. Rather than a single protagonist, the trilogy offers two: spunky, impetuous Lyra Belacqua, and her more thoughtful – but equally courageous – male counterpart, Will Parry. Quick plot summary: these kids are – literally – out to save the world.
I first encountered – and was enthralled by – these books in college. But to listen to the audio versions recently was to remember what a layered, miraculous narrative feat the novels are – and to marvel over how skillfully the cast on these CDs brings Pullman's opus to life.
To start, there's the narrator, Pullman himself. His grave, slightly-scratchy voice is the glue that holds the rest of the cast together. And his reading – storytelling, really – effortlessly does so.
Lyra is passionate, with the perfect, semischooled street-urchin accent. And Will progresses appropriately from a boy on the cusp of adulthood to a deeper-voiced young man.
Most fun of all, though, are the huge range of voices offered by other cast members. The terrifying Iorek Byrnison. The gentle, musical "mulefa," Atal. And dear Pantalaimon, Lyra's daemon, whose tones change from gently chastising (as her conscience) to adoring (as her soul) and back again.
For those who have yet to dig into the trilogy, all this talk of mulefas and daemons might not make much sense. So let me sum up by saying this: Listening to these books on CD is really not just a simple matter of being read to. It's more like attending a performance.