Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Golden Compass

For my first full read of 2012, I decided on The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, the captivating first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  The original published title for this book is Northern Lights - The Golden Compass is the US title, and since that is the version I have, that is what I will be calling it here.

Lyra Belacqua has grown up at Jordan College in Oxford under the care of the scholars and their servants; she is the ward of her uncle, Lord Asriel, who is only rarely present because he travels most of the time for research and exploration.  Her life is mostly carefree, as she spends much of her time playing war with other children from around the city (as well as the gyptian children, when their people are passing through) and exploring every bit of the College with her best friend, Roger.

She finds herself on a real adventure and on the brink of a real war, though, when one day she spies on the scholars and Lord Asriel during a meeting about important - and heretical - discoveries in the North:  Dust, and the apparent existence of another world.  Not long after, children begin disappearing from cities all across England, mostly from the lower-class neighborhoods and from the gyptian families.  Rumors spread about the child-stealers - the Gobblers - and soon Roger is also taken.  She is determined to find her way North to rescue him, and her opportunity comes up when the charming and endlessly fascinating Mrs Coulter visits Jordan College and requests for Lyra to live with her and be her assistant.  Before leaving, the master of the college meets with Lyra in secret, to present her with a mysterious object - the alethiometer, a kind of compass that will tell you the truth, if you know how to read the symbols - and he has her promise to keep the device a secret from Mrs Coulter.

Lyra soon finds out that Mrs Coulter is also vastly interested in Dust, and the more she hears about it, the more dangerous the whole business seems to be, as she finds herself not only in the midst of the conflict, but playing a key role.

I first heard of The Golden Compass when I saw the film adaptation in the movie theatre with my mother, and I really loved it.  It's a wonderful tale of adventure set in a unique and fascinating alternate universe; many of the places mentioned in the novel are familiar, such as countries like Lapland and England, but there are a great many differences as well.  One of the most interesting differences about Lyra's universe is that every human has a daemon - a being that is linked to you intrinsically, a part of your soul.  What you feel, your daemon feels, and vice versa.  Daemons all have an animal form, but children's daemons change often, only settling into one permanent form during puberty.

Pullman can not only come up with a great story, though - he has also developed some dynamic characters who really make the story come alive.  Lyra is an incredibly spirited girl, clever and courageous, though her daemon, Pantalaimon, is a bit more cautious and the two of them together are fun to get to know.  Lord Asriel, though he doesn't show up very often, is a commanding presence - being related to him is a great source of pride for Lyra.  I loved the gyptians - as their name might suggest, they are basically nautical gypsies.  Mrs Coulter, like Lord Asriel, is also a commanding presence throughout the novel.  She seems to have more depth than I would have expected, after having finished the book, and I'll be interested to see if there is any more of her in the second.  Apart from the gyptians, I also really loved Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear who assists Lyra once in the North.  He is a strong character and any fight scene involving him is sure to be exciting.

I definitely stayed up way too late on some nights, just because I didn't want to put the book down, and I was  a little sad when I finished it; it ends with a lot of action and mystery, and I look very forward to reading the second book in the trilogy so I can find out what happens next for Lyra and Pan, and see who, if any, of the other characters might also be around.

If you've seen the movie, but have not yet read the book - read the book.  Seriously.  As much as I enjoy the movie, I was pleased to find out that the book has even more action and adventure, and more mystery as well!  You're definitely cheating yourself if you haven't read this yet, and I wish I hadn't taken so long to get to it!

I remember when the movie came out, there was all kinds of uproar about it being atheist propaganda or some such thing, but I did not see that at all.  Yes, the Church (also known as the Magisterium)  is the all-powerful governing body in Lyra's universe, and they are perhaps not exactly "good guys," but that is kind of left up to interpretation, I felt, and this is definitely not a story written to brainwash your children into becoming atheists.  Yes, there are religious themes, but I honestly read this the same way I read the Chronicles of Narnia - a fun children's adventure story that I can't wait to get sucked into again at some point (though I would be a little more selective about the age of the children I let read The Golden Compass, as the fighting is a bit more violent, especially where the armored bears are concerned.  It's nothing compared to the fight scenes I've read in other fantasy novels - I'm looking at you, R.A. Salvatore - but it's definitely a little more bloody than what I remember being in any of the Narnia books).

All in all, I think I picked a fantastic book to kick off the year with.



Del Rey

Series Info:  What came before this book?  What's next?
His Dark Materials
* The Golden Compass / Northern Lights (Book 1)
- The Subtle Knife (Book 2)
- The Amber Spyglass (Book 3)

Film Adaptations:

See what others are saying about it, or buy it now:
Better World Books


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  1. Fantastic review. Have this to review for later too toward the Sci`Fiction Reader Challenge. Hmm atheist propaganda. Thanks for the fun info, really nice how you incorporated it into your review.

  2. I think I will add this trilogy to my TBR list, esp. as a juxtaposition to Narnia.