Season Two of His Dark Materials, based on The Subtle Knife—the second book in His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman, has ended. And, I want to thank both the BBC and HBO for thinking ahead and to start production of Season Two as soon as it was announced. It’s because of this decision to move ahead with the production they were able to release this season during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, it was announced during San Diego Comic Con 2020 that there was an “interlude” episode they couldn’t film because of the shutdown—it’s supposed to follow Lord Asriel’s travels leading up to his reappearance in the Season Finale—but, they hope to film and to release it ahead of Season Three. Yes, we’re getting the 3rd and final season!
For those of you who haven’t read the books should know The Subtle Knife is the shortest and the most fast-paced book in the trilogy. The book focuses on introducing Will Parry to readers, introducing Lyra Silvertongue to new worlds—including ours, following up on the aftermath of Lord Asriel creating a bridge to a new world and his plans to end The Authority, Lee Scoresby and the Witches search for Lyra, the Magisterium losing control within their world, and learning about why Lyra’s task is so urgent as well as what Will being The Bearer entails. The TV mini-series takes the time to work on character development and plot development. In addition to everything mentioned, the audience learns more about the characters and the ongoings in all of the worlds and how they are related to each other.
The main change and the majority of Season Two focuses on Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother. In the books, readers are aware the mother is searching for her child, and she learns of Lyra’s role in the upcoming Great War. However, readers are ignorant to her actions throughout The Subtle Knife until the very end of the book. In the mini-series, the audience learns of Mrs. Coulter’s motives and her reasons for committing all of the heinous acts she does throughout the season. This doesn’t make Mrs. Coulter a “good” person, but observing her actions and her decisions make her more emphatic; which, is why Lyra tries to avoid her at all costs.
While most of the episodes are straight-from-the-books, the time spent expanding on the characters and the world-building is admired. For example, because Will was introduced in Season One, his character was able to develop further into what readers already know he’ll become in by the end-of-the-season. Dr. Mary Malone’s scenes were insightful as well because not only is she able to make the connection between Dust and Dark Matter—while explaining them in a way the audience can understand: physics—but also the audience is able to understand her struggles with separating knowledge and thought before she can make the breakthrough in her research, which sets her on her quest to play the role of “The Serpent.”
The screen time with Lyra and Will are what drive the season, but it’s the screen time with Lee Scoresby and Dr. Stanislaus Grumman—a.k.a. Jopari, a.k.a. Colonel John Parry—who enhances it. The former are the adolescent protagonists who are destined to change the worlds using their skills and their tools. The latter are wayward travelers who realize what their destinies are and decide to act on them and protect the “Chosen Ones.” The more time the audience spends time with both pairs, the more they learn about their strengths, their flaws, and their resilience.
Overall, I enjoyed Season Two slightly more than I enjoyed Season One. One reason for this is because I spent more time comparing Season One to the movie, The Golden Compass, while distinguishing the mini-series separately. This time around, I was able to enjoy the mini-series without making more comparisons. Another reason is because the readers within the audience witnessed the dedication to the books throughout Season Two. That being said, some of the same issues are there—unnecessary changes which led to plot holes and/or too much character development—but it was a great season to watch. The performances by Dafne Keen, Amir Wilson, Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda have made these beloved characters their own, and I can’t wait to see how the mini-series ends when Season Three—based on The Amber Spyglass—is released, whenever that may be.
If you wish to read the reviews for each episode, then you can click on the episode titles to access them.
The season finale for Season Two opens with the witches talking about the attack from the Specters. Will and Lyra are with the witches as they all agree that they should leave Cittàgazze right after they find Will’s father. Meanwhile, Ruta Skadi overhears a group of creatures talking about the army Lord Asriel is building up and what that means for them. It turns out, a similar war occurred millennia ago, but the Authority was victorious. They say that without the Æsahættr, Asriel will lose the war.
Lyra and Will talk about their few—or, lack of—friends from their worlds and early childhoods. Both Lyra and Will admit being around each other has led to some changes in themselves for the better. Will is beginning to understand everything his mother told him about his father while growing up without him.
Mrs. Coulter and her daemon continue to wander through the city of Cittàgazze, which is now deserted—the children have returned to the mountains to be reunited with their parents (which doesn’t happen in the books)—and she finds more clues to her daughter’s whereabouts. She comes across one of the witches, and Mrs. Coulter tortures the witch to learn of Lyra’s location and her role in the upcoming events—which is why the Magisterium is targeting her. Mrs. Coulter believes she has a reason to protect her daughter.
Dr. Mary Malone escorts the children back to their parents before continuing onward with her quest. Dr. Malone continues to consult her books—both reference and spiritual—as she determines where she should go next. Blue flower petals keep appearing wherever she goes.
Ruta Skadi and Serafina Pekkala discuss what Ruta has learned about Asriel’s war. While they agree Lyra is the child of the prophecy, they realize the Authority could win the war again, so they go their separate ways hoping to meet up again during the Great War. Meanwhile, Serafina gets called to help another ally. This leaves Lyra and Will alone with one witch. Then, Will leaves.
Lee Scoresby and Doctor Stanislaus Grumman—a.k.a. Jopari, a.k.a. Colonel John Parry—survive the attack on the balloon, but they can no longer fly in it. The Magisterium soldiers are gaining ground, and the two travelers hurry to find the children. Lee and Jopari flee from the Magisterium until they have no choice but to hold them off for as long as they can. Lee Scoresby stays behind to fight while Jopari continues to end his search for the Bearer. This heartbreaking end is straight from the books, Lee and Hester have their last moments together knowing it’ll be worth it—for Lyra.
Will answers the calling which leads him straight to his father. Dr. Grumman cannot believe his teenaged son is the Bearer. Will cannot believe his father has a daemon. This reunion while different—and brief—in the books, is more meaningful and more heartfelt in this episode. They catch up on everything: Will’s mother, John’s travels, Will’s travels, the Subtle Knife, the Great War, etc. Then, the last soldier from the Magisterium appears and takes aim.
The episode ends with Seraphina Pekkala giving Lee Scoresby his last rites and Will burying his father. Lord Asriel makes his manifesto to the Angels for wanting to go to war; and, they stand with Asriel. Mrs. Coulter reunites with Lyra and takes her away from her allies. Unfortunately, Mrs. Coulter has Lyra and Pantalaimon drugged and locked inside a trunk. During Lyra’s unconsciousness, she hears the voice of a friend.
In all, this is one of the best episodes of Season Two. The season finale almost matched the last few chapters in The Subtle Knife to a tee. Yes, there are more questions viewers will want answered, but overall all of the plots and the subplots were wrapped up to where they had to be, and the presentation made it clear the Æsahættr episode ended the way it had to. I’m looking forward to Season Three.
The episode opens with the witches in the same world as Lyra and Will. And, they see angels traveling through the world. They see this as a sign that the prophecy is coming closer to fruition. This is another sign that the war—led by Lord Asriel—is about to begin.
Meanwhile, Will continues to suffer from the loss of his fingers—he never received any medical attention of any kind. Lyra tends to him until she comes across Angelica and the rest of the children who want revenge on her and Will for getting the Knife from Angelica’s brother, which led to his death by the Specters. Before any harm can happen to them, Serafina Pekkala arrives to Lyra and Will’s aid.
The children and the witches rally beyond the city. They treat Will’s injury as best as they can, but the witches say that the plants in their world—Lyra’s world—will help Will recover. Lyra consults the Alethiometer regarding the location of Will’s father, and he’s made it into the same world they are in. There is more dialogue in these scenes as the visitors continue their journey to find Will’s father, before the Specters come after them.
At the same time, Lee Scoresby and Doctor Stanislaus Grumman arrive in a new world where they know Lyra is in. They discuss what Grumman learned while deserted in Lyra’s world—shamanism, witches, academia, spirits, etc. As they get closer to locating Lyra, so does the Magisterium, who have entered the world as well. Both Lee and Dr. Grumman work together to get the Magisterium out of the way before they can harm Lyra and the Bearer.
Meanwhile, Dr. Mary Malone arrives in the city where Lyra and Will just left. She consults some of her books about…hiking and camping(?) in order to survive her journey. Fortunately and unfortunately, she meets Angelica and her friends—who know she’s not from their world, but cannot understand why the Specters don’t attack her—who explain how their world has changed since the Specters arrived causing all of the adults to flee into the mountains. Dr. Malone agrees to take the lost children to their parents.
Cardinal MacPhail receives an answer from the Magisterium’s Alethiometer about Mrs. Coulter. The Alethiometer tells the Council what Mrs. Coulter is up to, as well as the question everyone wants an answer to: Who is Lyra Belaqua? The hints and the answer leads to the Magisterium to take action and to track down Lyra in order to kill her and to stop the prophecy from being fulfilled. Their forces head towards the opening Lord Asriel created to stop Lyra before she completes her task(s), and her destiny.
Mrs. Coulter and Carlo Boreal arrive in another world in order to track down Lyra and Will. Mrs. Coulter discovers very quickly as to why Lord Boreal is afraid of the world. Mrs. Coulter face off against the Specters, and they don’t attack her; in fact, she is able to gain some control over them. Mrs. Coulter’s revelation on how she was able to do this is a throwback from Season One. Note: this scene is a step closer to answering the question I had about the ending of The Subtle Knife. As for the last scene between Mrs. Coulter and Lord Boreal—before they go their separate ways—is NOT in the book. Actually, if I recall, then I believe Lord Boreal has a different fate in the books.
In all, this episode is a buildup to the finale, which should be closer to the books than what viewers received so far in this season. That being said, the episode was great in presenting the strengths and the abilities of all of the characters, and the dangers they all possess. The ending of this episode leaves the audience in high anticipation for the final episode in Season Two.
This episode opens with Carlo Boreal giving Mrs. Coulter a description of our world, which is extremely accurate—“Their government is more corrupt than ours; their world is built on consumerism, not faith.” Boreal continues to explain how our world operates to Mrs. Coulter, and that includes her getting a makeover so she can blend into our world while searching and waiting for Lyra.
Meanwhile, Will and Lyra make plans on getting back the Alethiometer without handing over the Subtle Knife to the man who stole it. Will practices cutting and closing windows into our world. During their plans, Will and Lyra learn what happened to the older boy who stole the Knife from the Last Bearer; and, he happens to be Angelica’s older brother. The two children and the two adults prepare themselves to get what they want from the other party.
All the while, Cardinal MacPhail is starting to understand what he must do in order to maintain control in his world, as well as the Council of the Magisterium. The “anomaly” is no longer the Magisterium’s main threat to their power: the witches, Lord Asriel, and now Mrs. Coulter are working “against” the Magisterium, and they don’t know what to do.
Mrs. Coulter is the focus of this episode. Viewers learn more about her life before she was a married woman. I’m not sure whether or not this is in the books—I haven’t read The Secret Commonwealth, yet—but, discovering more about Mrs. Coulter’s character, her knowledge and what the social norms—misogyny—of her society (the Magisterium) did to her, brings an understanding to how and why she was attracted to Lord Asriel in the first place. She visits Dr. Mary Malone, where she learns more about her daughter’s character and the life she could have had if she lived in our world instead of hers. This is an essential realization because the audience discovers the numerous restrictions the Magisterium has placed within their world on all its denizens, and what Lord Asriel’s war is all about.
Dr. Malone is given her task by the Dark Matter—“You must play the Serpent. Protect the Girl and the Boy,”—meaning, the (female) scholar is about to embark on her journey across other worlds, and learn more about Dark Matter. Dr. Malone makes the preparations and she is able to locate another window, and travel into the next world. But, which world does she end up in?
Lyra and Will wait until nighttime to return to Will’s world and steal back the Alethiometer. They have Boreal’s house memorized and they are ready; except, they didn’t expect Lyra’s mother to be there as well. Mother and daughter confront each other, and the two males fight over the Knife. This is different from what happened in the book, but it makes for an interesting scene. Lyra is in the position where she wants to be different from her parents, but cannot avoid behaving like them. Will understands where Lyra is coming from and he tells her she doesn’t have to be like the adults in her life. Meanwhile, what else does Mrs. Coulter know?
In all, I enjoyed this episode a lot more than I thought I would. A lot of the story for this episode was taken from the book, while the fillers were expansions into character development. The end of the episode had me thinking about an unanswered question about the ending of The Subtle Knife. After all these years, I believe I might get my question answered. Otherwise, all of the characters have their tasks—and their tools—and are ready to do see it done.
This episode opens with how the Subtle Knife was created and the history of the world where it was created, and how both fell to corruption. The narration is similar to the opening scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring film, and I believe this was done intentionally in order to keep the audience’s attention, or to note the deliberate parallels between Pullman and Tolkien.
Lyra and Will return to the world where the Knife is said to be found. Unfortunately, someone else has found the Knife and its bearer. They all fight over the knife (which includes a throwback to Season One). The Subtle Knife has chosen Will to be its new bearer, and Will wears its mark. The Last Bearer has to teach Will about the Knife and how to use it before the Specters claim him. It takes some time, but Will learns how to cut into other worlds. Now, both Lyra and Will are ready to come up with a plan to get the Alethiometer back.
At last, Lee Scoresby locates Doctor Stanislaus Grumman and they discuss their plans involving Lord Asriel. Lee states that he’s interested in Lyra’s well-being and her role in whatever is about to occur during the upcoming war. Dr. Grumman tells Lee of his past and how his knowledge of the other worlds has cost him his family. Next, he explains to Lee how and why Asriel’s cause is a reasonable one. Then, the lost traveler tells the aeronaut about the Knife, why Asriel needs it, and why they need to find its Bearer.
Dr. Malone’s research continues to gain a lot of attention by “questionable” investors. She fights off those who would do harm with the knowledge she’s uncovered so far, but she knows until she makes her breakthrough, Dr. Malone won’t be able to fight off investors forever. At last, Dr. Malone does make a breakthrough with her Dark Matter research and it’s more than she expected.
The witches gather the last of their forces to search for Lyra, and to fight the Magisterium. At the same time, Mrs. Coulter has found Lyra, too. Both parties crossover into the next (our) world. Who will find Lyra first?
In all, this episode was very well done. A lot of the content from the books made it into this episode. I’m concerned about some of the filler material, but we’ll see how they’ll playout in the future episodes and the plot development.
The episode opens with the devastation left behind by the Magisterium on the witches, who swear vengeance against them. However, the clans acknowledge that their priority is to search for Lyra Silvertongue before the Great War begins. Unfortunately, they have no idea where she could be.
Lee Scoresby continues his search for Lyra—in his world—by searching for Doctor Stanislaus Grumman, in which rumors say that he is in possession of a “weapon” that offers protection. It seems that Scoresby is more of a gunslinger than an aeronaut in this adaptation, yet his conviction for finding Lyra and helping the witches continues to bring out the best in him. His interrogation with Mrs. Coulter is very interesting because viewers gain more understanding of Lee’s character as well as how and why he became an aeronaut (on the TV series anyway). As for Mrs. Coulter, I believe it’s safe to say that she recalls what it’s like to have the Magisterium looking for you.
Meanwhile, Lyra decides to return to Will’s (our) world, without him, which leaves Will searching through the World of Specters for her. These scenes are altered so that Lyra appears more careless in Will’s world and disregards Will’s warnings about “people searching for them.” Lyra loses the Alethiometer because she ignores her instincts and does what she shouldn’t do. In the books, Lyra is unaware anyone from her world is familiar with Will’s world.
Dr. Malone continues her research on Dark Matter based on what Lyra told her about Dust. In these scenes, viewers learn more about her character, including her lifestyle as a scholar, and what she must do in order to make the breakthrough in her research. And, she’s closer than she realizes.
As Will continues to search for Lyra, he meets up with Angelica who continues to warn Will about the Specters. Angelica explains to Will why the Tower is so significant in her world. It seems that scholars are very significant to the plot of this story. The scene at the movie theater is straight from the books. After Will finds Lyra, they go in search of the man who took the Alethiometer. They find the man who stole the Alethiometer, and he offers to trade it for another item, which both Will and Lyra have to retrieve.
In all, this episode is more in line with the chapters from The Subtle Knife. The expansion of character development and dialogue demonstrates where all of the characters stand at this point in the mini-series. Readers of the books know what to expect in the next episode, but the viewers are about to learn more about the workings of Dust.
This episode opens up with Lyra crossing over into another world—our world—to learn more about Dust and about the similarities between her Oxford and Will’s Oxford. Unfortunately, Lyra has to learn how to adapt to this “new” world as she experiences technology—the scene with the car is straight from the books—and people without daemons, poor Pantalaimon.
Will warns Lyra that people are looking for them and they have to do everything they can to blend in and stay hidden. Alas, Lyra is still young enough to be naïve as she makes her way through Will’s Oxford. She hasn’t figured out that there are a few individuals from her world who’ve made their way into hers a long time ago.
Meanwhile, the Magisterium deals with the death of Cardinal Sturrock—due to the witches’ attack and the motivations of both Father MacPhail and Mrs. Coulter—and an election for a new leader must occur before their plans can continue to move forward. At the same time, the witches convene in order to further their plans, before they receive retribution for their actions. The “testimony” provided by Dr. Martin Lanselius delves into the culture of the witches, which reveals why the Magisterium is afraid of them. “Rituals are not secret.” However, does the Magisterium fear the witches, their knowledge, or both?
Will’s story continues to develop further in this media adaptation. There are some hints in the books that Will’s father made arrangements for his family just in case something happened to him. Will learns he has living (paternal) grandparents, but soon realizes why his family is estranged from them. Not to mention, they are working with the authorities in the investigation about Will’s father. This scene embellishes Will’s fear of people looking for him.
Lyra’s search into what Dust is and her meeting with Dr. Mary Malone is from the books, precisely. Everything from Lyra using the alethiometer to her using Dr. Malone’s equipment, which confirms that both Dust and Dark Matter are the same thing. In my opinion, Dr. Malone’s research about Dust—known as Dark Matter to us—is explained better in the TV series than in the books. This could be because I read the books when I was in high school, and while I’ve heard of Dark Matter, I didn’t know enough about it to grasp the explanation of it in the books.
Lyra and Will share a heart-to-heart about their experiences, their situations, and their families. From there, they decide on what they have to do next. At the same time, a new Cardinal has been elected, and someone else has pinned-pointed Lyra’s location. And, the witches’ decision about war is made for them by their adversaries.
In all, The Cave was a better and a stronger episode than the previous one. Now, that all of the characters have a better understanding of themselves through their interactions with each other, they know what they have to do and are ready to follow up on those choices. War has been declared, the existence of worlds are starting to become recognized, and actions are about to be taken as the story continues. What will happen in the next episode?
Season Two immediately picks up where Season One left off. Lyra Silvertongue has crossed the bridge into a new world. A world that is devoid of people, except for one. Will Parry has found himself in the same world, and Lyra is the first person he’s seen since arriving there. However, both children soon learn that the other isn’t from that world, and they’re not alone.
Meanwhile, the witches have joined forces in order to search for Lyra and to protect her as the prophecies continue to play out. They find an ally in Lee Scoresby, who goes in search of another who is said to possess a weapon that offers protection. At the same time, the Magisterium and Mrs. Coulter find themselves preparing for war as they attempt to track down both Lord Asriel and Lyra.
The premiere episode of Season Two feels more like a filler than an episode, but it makes sense because there’s supposed to be a “fallout” due to Lord Asriel’s actions. He knew what he was doing and what would happen because of it, but he did it because he believes in his cause. The episode is split between the Magisterium, and Lyra and Will. The Magisterium fears losing power due to the “evidence” that they have no control over their world (and others), and Will and Lyra are searching for a haven. Lyra and Will’s interactions are almost parallel to the events in the beginning of The Subtle Knife—especially the cooking scene.
In all, The City of Magpies is a decent premiere of what is to come throughout Season Two. Not all worlds are the same or safe, and tensions continue to build up. Fans will enjoy the new introduction sequence. In addition, there is another cameo appearance by a young actress from another popular media adaptation series which will leave you all even more engaged in the scenes compared to other ones.
It’s almost time! Season 2 of His Dark Materials will premiere on HBO (in the U.S.) this Monday. This season will be based on the second book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, and it will be 8 episodes long, just like Season One. Now, while The Subtle Knife is the shortest book in His Dark Materials trilogy, it doesn’t lack in story, in plot development and in character development.
With the fillers from Season 1, viewers already know who Will Parry is and his “connection” to the Magisterium. In addition, Lyra Silvertongue sees her parents for the type of people they are and decides to leave her world in order to learn more about Dust before confronting her father. Unbeknownst to the two children, everyone is looking for them: the Magisterium, the witches, and their remaining allies. Lord Asriel is building up his army in order to end the reign of the Magisterium and other organizations like it. The numerous witch covens join into a single unit in order to see the prophecy to its end. And, the Magisterium will do all they can in order to gain dominance over all worlds. Yet, how will these adversaries beat the others towards their goal?
However, searching for “invisible doorways” to other worlds isn’t working for anyone anymore. Now, everyone is searching for a tool that “creates doorways.” Does the tool choose the bearer or does the bearer search for the tool? Is it similar to the alethiometer? Are the two items related?
The Subtle Knife contains the most action of the trilogy and I expect to see it reflected throughout Season 2 of the TV series. I doubt there will be any fillers, but I’m more curious as to how and when Season 2 will end. Without going into spoilers, I wonder whether or not Season 2 will end in the same manner as The Subtle Knife; or, if some of the opening chapters from The Amber Spyglass—the final book in the trilogy—will seep into Season 2. It was announced fans can expect Season 3—based on The Amber Spyglass—to happen by both the BBC and HBO. The only thing to be concerned with is when to expect the premiere of Season 3—COVID-19 sucks.
Obviously, I’m very excited for this season of the adaptation of one of my favorite books of all-time. I’ll be reviewing each episode as they air, commenting and making predictions about what will happen next based on the adaptation—as well as the books. Who else is excited about Season 2 of His Dark Materials?
Please note the title of this post refers to books! I will write a separate list containing movies, TV shows and video games related to speculative fiction sometime in the future. And, expect that list to consist of “originals,” not just media adaptations of books. Also, these are NOT my favorite speculative fiction books of all-time! I’m not even sure I can make a list without changing it every year; hence why I do an annual list.
Everyone has a favorite genre of literature (and films, video games, etc.), but has it occurred to you why and how that came to be? Did someone introduce you to the genre? Was it an author’s book—or, several of them—that hooked your passion for the genre? Was it a pop culture moment? In other words, do you remember the moment—or, the story—that got you into your favorite genre(s)? This question can be asked of any format or medium, but I thought about which books got me into speculative fiction and how it influenced my love and my appreciation for the genre. It did take some time to think back on what I’ve read since I was a kid, but I realized that some of the books released in the past decade have been just as influential as the ones I’ve read growing up.
I’ve managed to compile a list of 10 books/series that influenced my love for the speculative fiction genre. Please know that I listed the books in the chronological order I read them regardless of the book’s publication date. The reasons for this is obvious. I hope you read and enjoy them as much as I did.
Animorphs by K.A. Applegate
I’m a 90s kid, and there were several book series for kids—The Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, etc.—but, I remember when the debut book in this series was released. I was 10 years-old, still in elementary school, and intrigued by the book’s cover: a boy changing from human to animal (a lizard). The story was about a group of friends who are given powers to change into animals by a dying alien in order to fight an invasion against a race of hostile aliens. This sci-fi series was the first book series in which I had to learn how to wait patiently for a book to be written and released when I wanted to devour the next one immediately. At the same time, this series introduced me to the blending of both the science fiction and the paranormal genres. Even though I didn’t know what paranormal was at the time, I knew this was different from other alien media I consumed with an explanation of D.N.A., permanent consequences, and the difficulties in balancing family, school, and saving the world. Animorphs was my first obsessive book series.
2. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
I’m in 9th grade and one of many students who participated in an optional reading course through our English class. Two of my best friends participated in this course with me. However, the three of us chose different books to read during the second quarter. I can’t remember what one friend chose, but my other friend was upset with us for not selecting The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Why? Well, the description of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie was more intriguing to me: a boy whose father loses the source of his stories, and he’s a storyteller. The boy, Haroun, goes on a journey to find out what happened to the “source” of the stories. The story is a twist on fairy tale tropes and fantastical elements with rounded characters and lots of humor. It wasn’t until I was reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (in 12th grade) that I learned about magic realism and Salman Rushdie’s contribution to the genre. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books I read for (grade) school. And, before you ask, no I haven’t read The Once and Future King in its entirety, yet.
3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
I’m going to say something controversial: Harry Potter is not my favorite (fantasy) series of my childhood. Don’t get me wrong! I love that series and what it’s done for the speculative fiction genre, children’s and YA literature, the popularity of fantasy, and the reading and the writing communities. Yet, there was another series that came out at the same time and introduced me to the blending of fantasy, science and religion. I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and I found myself enjoying Lyra’s story more than Harry’s. I want to say it’s because the flawed characters were more believable, the aspects of science and philosophy in a fantasy worked with the plot, and the idea of “other worlds” was intriguing to me. I hadn’t read C.S. Lewis’ or Madeline L’Engle’s series yet, so Philip Pullman was my introduction to portal fantasy, and I’ve been obsessed with them since reading His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve read The Book of Dust already, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the companion trilogy to His Dark Materials; and, I’m excited for Season 2 of the television series, too!
4. The Modern Faerie Tale Trilogy by Holly Black
I still remember reading Holly Black’s debut novel, Tithe. The story is an urban fantasy about how a teenaged girl realizes she’s been interacting with faeries since she was a child, and what that means for her and her family and her friends. Yes, I read one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books—her debut novel, Nightseer—so I had a fair idea of what to expect from fae fantasy, but urban fantasy blends the original variants of fae stories with mundane society; and, the fae are NOT nice beings. Fae are not what they are according to Disney movies. They don’t “play fair” and are usually in it for themselves. It makes for an interesting story combining folklore and modernity. I would meet Holly Black at the BookExpo I attended that year, which was my first one; and, I met Cassandra Clare there, too! I read and enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, and Holly Black’s other books, especially The Air of the Folk trilogy. This series was my gateway to reading other books in that genre, especially ones by Seanan McGuire, Ilona Andrews and Amelia Hutchins.
5. The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono
Yes, there is a fantasy series by the same name by Jeffe Kennedy, but the name of the series is where the similarities end. The 90s saw an expansion of anime series: Pokémon, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon, etc. Manga and books were being translated and imported to the U.S. The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow was translated and released after I graduated from college, and I was introduced to Asian inspired dark fantasy. The story follows Yoko Nakajima, a high schooler who lives a mundane, yet lonely life. To make matters worse, she stands out due to her red hair—she is the biological daughter of Japanese parents. One day, Yoko is abducted at her school, transported to another world, abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new world. This series introduced me to a fantasy world in which the “traveler” is not welcomed as a “hero” and survival is based on realistic situations. The theme of xenophobia in fantasy is presented in a way that will make you think about what could happen in other fantasy worlds, especially when—SPOILER ALERT—the protagonist chooses to remain in that world instead of returning home, and how and why such a choice is made. So, if there are any fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, then you’ll love this series, too.
6. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda
Growing up, I read comics, graphic novels and manga, and many of them were recommended by friends and relatives. In fact, that’s how I learned about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. However, for several years, I didn’t read as many graphic novels as I wanted. I didn’t lose interest, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to read. I did take a course about graphic novels in college, but I took another one when I was in grad school—where I read Watchmen—and learned about the format and its growing influence, especially for the memoir and biography genre. At the same time, two of my friends and classmates introduced me to recent bestsellers and new releases. Not only did I begin to read Joe Hill’s Locke & Key series and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, but a new series with an eye-catching cover intrigued me: a woman standing in front of a brass door with a matching mechanical arm. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is a dark fantasy in which a young woman searches into her mother’s research and her lost memories as she deals with demons both real and inner. The artwork will engross you into the world both the author and the artist present. While describing the series as a “visual fantasy” isn’t 100% accurate, it is a way to get speculative fiction fans into reading this graphic novel series.
What can I say about this trilogy that hasn’t been said by everyone else who has read it, including myself? This Hugo Award winning series—yes, it swept the Hugos for Best Novel in consecutive years—is a gateway into the future of the speculative fiction genre and the type of stories that can be told withing the genre. N.K. Jemisin not only writes a brilliant science fantasy series, but also incorporates the atrocious practices humanity continues to perform, which forces readers to consider the realities of human society and its future. For me, this series introduced me to modern speculative fiction and the new set of expectations that it brought to the entire community! Jemisin’s contemporaries: Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Jesmyn Ward, Tochi Onyebuchi, P. Djèlí Clark, Marlon James, Rivers Solomon, etc.—all have taken familiar tropes of the genre and presented readers with new methods of telling and writing these stories. If you haven’t done so already, then go and read this amazing trilogy!
This is not the first folklore retelling I’ve read, but it’s one of the most beautiful written ones I’ve come across; and, it brings a new appreciation for the season of winter. This series follows Vasya as she grows from child to adolescent to adult in a patriarchal society during a transition where “old traditions” are fading and being replaced with a “new” religion. Vasya fights to maintain the old traditions while Russian society undergoes several changes. Folklore is the cultural and the societal traditions that are passed along from generation to generation through a web of communication; and, history plays a role in folklore as well. Katherine Arden presents a balance amongst folklore, history and fantasy in this trilogy. This series will remind speculative fiction fans of the beauty within the genre and how it can remain from beginning to end.
While this is the first book in The Metamorphosis series—it’s the only one translated into English so far—it’s a great and mind-blowing introduction into the metaphysical genre. Not to mention, it takes the trope of the “magic school” and provides a more realistic, yet twisted story of what could occur at such a place. This story will make you think of Alan Moore and your concept of reality. In addition, you’ll start to think of these “magic schools” as drafts instead of opportunities. Other genres in speculative fiction has readers asking questions about the world around them, but metaphysical fiction has readers question the reality of their existence. The difference is it seems that a limited population experiences the metaphysical compared to fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, magic realism, etc. This series and genre will make you question everything!
Although I’ve heard enough about Joe Abercrombie, Peter McLean, John Gwynne, and Anna Smith Spark enough to buy their books, it was Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced me to the grimdark subgenre. Yes, I’m a reader and a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but to me that series is more of a historical low-fantasy series rather than straight grimdark (I could be wrong about that). This book introduced me to characters who are all “gray” with “reasonable” motivations who strive towards those goals as their lives and the world fall to pieces. As grim, dark and sad as the characters and their stories are, it continues with the knowledge that life goes one no matter how many people die and are resurrected and die again. This book and its contemporaries represent the harsh side of a fantasy world that reflect ours.
So, there is my list of speculative fiction books that kept my interest in the genre since childhood. While my list of all-time favorite speculative fiction books continue to change over and over, this list of books influenced my love and my appreciation of this genre of literature. And, from my perspective, I appreciate the influence and the bridging from one book or series to another with a similar genre structure. Which books got you into this genre? Have you read any or all of my picks or any books by the authors mentioned in this post? Comment below or send me a link to your online response.