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5 Books like His Dark Materials: Magic & Mystery

Jo Ward itcherThis article will NOT reference Harry Potter. You’ll know about him unless you’ve been in outer space for the last decade or so. So I’m looking for other books, less well known. Books with children at their heart, with a magical element that even so are not whimsical but where the children face tough choices and dangerous adventures. I hope that with my choices I’ve managed. I’ve selected ‘The Dark is Rising ’, ‘The Old Kingdom’, ‘Kit’s Wilderness’, ‘Witch Child’ and ‘Tales of the Otori’. ~ Jo Ward

Familiar yet Fantastic

‘His Dark Materials’ takes a world that is vaguely familiar, places like Oxford and Svalbard, but inserts into them a magical element that takes them beyond recognition. The children at the heart of the stories travel through real danger, but it is so well written that however fantastical, it draws you in. Matching this is always going to be hard! Here are my recommendations for books like ‘His Dark Materials’.


Books Similar to ‘His Dark Materials’…

‘The Dark Is Rising’ (Susan Cooper, 1965)

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I’ve recommended this before and will probably do so again! The first choice for books similar to ‘His Dark Materials’ has to be this one.

A seaside holiday turns into a quest to find the Grail for Simon, Jane and Barney, but there are evil powers also looking for it. Can the children, with the aid of Great-Uncle Merry, help Good overcome Evil?

This is a five book series which starts as an Enid Blyton style adventure in ‘Over Sea, Under Stone’ but quickly progresses into a truly fantastic series (in both senses of the word!). This is probably a more demanding read than ‘His Dark Materials’ but well worth the effort.

Similarity Match: 90%
Children caught in a magical battle between Good and Evil which sends the children on amazing adventures but puts them in danger – it’s all here!

‘Tales of the Otori’ (Lian Hearn, 2002)

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We’re moving away from alternative visions of Britain now, and into alternative visions of medieval Japan for my next book like ‘His Dark Materials’. Takeo has grown up with the Hidden, and in their village he has learnt only the ways of peace. But they have now been massacred, and he is taken in by Lord Otori Shigeru.

Takeo learns that his father was an assassin, from the Tribe, a family with preternatural skills. Takeo also has these skills, and is now facing his destiny.

This series starts with ‘Across the Nightingale Floor’, and maybe lacks an authentic Japanese feel, but most readers will be in it for the fantasy element and I suspect may not mind this too much.

Similarity Match: 80%.
A young hero, a destiny to fulfil, plenty of mystique and mystery along the way. But unlike ‘His Dark Materials’, this takes us to another culture and a distant time in history.

‘The Old Kingdom’ (Garth Nix, 2002)

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Garth Nix has written several fantasy series. This is the best place to start. The young heroine, Sabriel (also the name of the first book), is, like Lyra, a real character rather than a warrior. But here we have two worlds which collide rather than one, fantasy infused world.

Sabriel is at boarding school when she learns her father has disappeared. Now she must travel to the Old Kingdom to find him. But this is a place where the dead won’t stay dead, where evil things lurk and where the Free Magic is all around her.

Similarity Match: 75%
Like ‘His Dark Materials’, this is a trilogy which starts with a young heroine on a quest, but it is not as eloquently written and lacks some of the depth.


If You Like ‘His Dark Materials’, You Will Like…

Fantasy comes in so many forms. It can be difficult to pinpoint what makes one series distinct from all others. I’ve chosen two that simply have a different ‘feel’ to ‘His Dark Materials’, but that are equally compelling. One is set in a historical context and tells a tale of superstition (not altogether unfounded) and mistrust. The other is set in a mining village and while not really magical is certainly full of the mysterious and foreboding.

‘Kit’s Wilderness’ (David Almond, 1999)

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Stoneygate is an old mining town, and Kit has moved there with his family to look after his widowed grandfather. His grandfather is full of stories about the mines, and about Kit’s family.

When Kit meets John Askew, a boy with a troubled past, he is drawn into Askew’s game. The game called Death.

There is little overt magic here but there are certainly hints of it – is Kit really seeing ghosts in the mines, or is it his imagination? But it is the exploration of family and what that means, of friendship, and of history which make this an exceptional book. The quality of the writing is second to none and anyone who enjoyed ‘His Dark Materials’ should also be able to lose themselves in this haunting tale.

No talking bears or epic adventures, but a story of family and friendship, aimed at teenagers but just as compelling for adults.

‘Witch Child’ (Celia Rees, 2000)

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A set of papers sewn into a quilt turn out to be a diary. Written by Mary, they date back to 1659 and start with the hanging of her grandmother after she was accused of being a witch. Alone and terrified, Mary is rescued and travels to the New World.

But this is the era of the Salem Witch Trials and this is not the escape from persecution that Mary hopes for.

Magic is not an overt theme of the book, but it is gently pervasive. The writing is beautiful and haunting, and well worth a look.

Next to no similarities in terms of plot, but there is a strong female protagonist and the ever pervasive feel of magic.


Crossing the Line

‘His Dark Materials’ is one of those books aimed at capturing the interest of teenagers, but which crosses over into adult fiction really well. The complexity of the plot, plus the great writing, make this a compelling series whatever your age. Hopefully the same is true of my other choices – but what would you have included?

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