Philip Pullman was wrong.
That was my first thought after finishing David Colbert's The Magical Worlds of Philip Pullman. What I'm referring to is the front cover Pullman quote: "Intelligent and perceptive...This is a good guide." A guide will help you navigate and find your way, Magical Worlds is much better described by Colbert himself: "a treasury of fascinating facts." And it is, indeed, a treasury - a highly unusual one with those prominently displayed locked golden gem-encrusted brilliantly lit chests stuck through with a key awaiting only the turn of your wrist.
The first thing you'll notice if you rifle through Magical Worlds in a bookstore is its unusual layout. The bulk of the book is dedicated to answering what Colbert calls "the right questions." His first interview with Pullman led him to realize that he was free to ask anything, but he would get nothing if he didn't ask the right questions. He lays them out in the table of contents. Also throughout the book, faithfully on each page there is a small sidebar of some interesting extra tidbit. These sidebars can range from facts about Heinrich von Kleist's life to quotations from Anna Maxwell Martin. More haphazard are the small extra sections - a couple pages in darker printing with longer extras highlighted by clever titles: "You little devil," "The Pantalaimon Code," and "I need that like I need a Hole in the Head" are a few - all of these which His Dark Materials fans can pretty much unravel overall content just from a glimpse. Reading through in a straight line can be confusing. I found the best way to read was to read a page until I hit a paragraph break, read the sidebar, continue on until the chapter end, and then flip back to the darker extra pages. You get into a rhythm.
David Colbert authored a few other "magical worlds" books before Pulllman's. Previous works include The Magical Worlds of The Lord of The Rings, The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter, and The Magical Worlds of Narnia. Why Colbert switched to the author name instead of using HDM in the title was something I was curious about, but quickly realized it held no bearing over the contents - it wasn't the right question. Colbert's book focuses entirely on His Dark Materials, not veering into the Sally Lockheart novels or any of Pullman's other work.
Each question Colbert focuses on, he answers in an intriguing and intelligent way. Often, he brings in historical influences and affections of historical moments from the source materials, into the telling of HDM. Milton is often a focus where Pullman books tread, but "Worlds" also has a section dedicated to Blake - Pullman's true influential reading of Milton's original work.
Along with finding influences, "Worlds" also brings to play some literary techniques - Is Lord Asriel a true Hero? Does Mrs. Coulter really change? Colbert also isn't afraid of going off a bit into mythology or surrounding stories if they will aide the answering of his chapter question.
The largest down point of this book right now is that it's costly because it's just been released. This fact will change. This is a book that His Dark Materials fans will enjoy, but not necessarily need. I'd highly recommend it if you get the chance, however, this is not something for anyone who hasn't read HDM. Colbert's book isn't just an interesting treasury; it's well written and very enjoyable. If you see this in a bookstore, at very least do his work the justice of picking it up and reading the introduction - the remainder of the book is just as nicely-written and fascinating. If you could use that, get it. If you could use it and can't afford it, put it on a gift list somewhere.
It's interesting, and perhaps Colbert noticed himself, that he begins noting the need to ask the right questions. In this case, these are the ones that will give robust answers from Pullman and can extend into the works of historical figures, current debates, and universal humanistic ideals. Everything means something, if you can read it, but meaning isn't exclusive to the answer. Even "42" isn't a very helpful answer if you don't know the question behind it.