This is a romp – I can think of no other word to describe it. I love ‘His Dark Materials’, and I think it needs to be made very clear that Count Karlstein is a completely different kind of book. It has none of the moral depth, the complex world-building or the deep philosophical underpinning. It was written for fun, and it is fun to read.
As Philip Pullman explains in his “author’s note”, Count Karlstein was originally written as a school play. Essentially, he took all the ingredients he most wanted to play with, shook them up and poured them higgledy-piggledy onto the page – so while the story does kind of make sense, it’s the same kind of sense as a pantomime plot, where everyone runs around in the dark and it all somehow sorts itself out in time for the curtain call. There are dark bits and scary bits and a nice dramatic narrative structure, but there’s plenty of time for comic set pieces, even at the tensest of moments.
Knowing that this was originally a play, I read this in a more visual mode than I am used to. Part of my brain was always thinking about how it would work on stage, and which bits had needed to be adapted. This could have been a distraction but in fact I think it worked well with Pullman’s descriptive style. It would probably have been even better for someone with a more naturally visual imagination.
This book is in no way educational nor edifying, but you should probably read it anyway.