It may come as a surprise that one of YA lit’s most legendary heroines is only twelve. I’m speaking of course, of Lyra Belacqua/Silvertongue from Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. I tried to pick a favorite of the books to focus on, but they’re each amazing in their own right. Whether you have a problem with Pullman’s more dogmatic or theoretical points (if you can even understand them) or not, Lyra is pretty much universally amazing. She’s not particularly strong or beautiful, and she doesn’t have a magical weapon (unless you count the alethiometer) to help her. Instead, she has her intelligence, her tenacity, and her ability to lie really, really well.
The three-book series follows Lyra through her adventures in a similar but parallel universe – from Oxford to the Artic and across the boundaries of further worlds. She is joined along the way by Will Parry and aided by a huge cast of intriguing characters: armored polar bears, Texan aeronauts, witches, angels, scientists, and an ex-nun, not to mention her daemon Pan (a spiritual companion manifesting as an animal). The plot concerns Lyra’s attempts to essentially survive and ensure the survival of her friends in a world being literally torn apart by the war between religion and science.
Lyra herself is a willful, scrappy kid, personified near-perfectly by Dakota Blue Richards in the otherwise underwhelming movie of The Golden Compass. But she is well-educated and fiercely loyal. Her plot is the anchor at the center of Pullman’s complex and theological theories that spring out from it, and she is a genuinely captivating protagonist. Even when she is joined by Will, we never doubt whose story this really is. She never backs down from a challenge or a fight no matter the odds, and both her courage and clear-sightedness (particularly in reading the alethiometer) are inspiring. And for the heroine of a series with a lot of erudite theory, she is remarkably down-to-earth and relatable.
Pullman has been criticized for his critiques of Christianity and the gesture towards “killing God.” While I personally disagree (I looked at the death of the God-character as more of a release than a murder), it is quite tricky to wade through all the heavily-academic topics (the nature of Dust, pretty much anything to do with Mary Malone, Lord Asriel, or Ms. Coulter). I read the books as from about the ages of 10-13 and while Lyra’s plot is easier to understand and more entertaining for younger to middle-grade readers, to understand anything beyond that you pretty much need to be an upper-grade, which is what I recommend. While it is cast as a YA book, Pullman initially intended the series to be for adults, which explains a lot.
What I appreciated most at the time and still today was the fact that for all its fantasy and conjecture, the series ends realistically. No one rides off into the sunset to live happily ever after; at the end of the day they have to go back to their normal lives and try to carry on. It’s tragic, but it strikes home the way a more scripted “happy ending” wouldn’t. You want Lyra to have the fairytale ending even as you know she can’t, which is a bit of masterful storytelling right there…