August 22, 2009

Book Review: "The Golden Compass" by Philip Pullman

Title: The Golden Compass (Book One of His Dark Materials)
Philip Pullman
Publisher: Scholastic
Published: 1995
Pages: 368
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
ISBN-10: 0440238137
ISBN-13: 978-0440238133

No matter how good a story is, or how well a story is told, someone is going to be offended. I'm sure there is, somewhere on this planet, a nitwit who finds the phone book to be an offensive piece of literature and wants to see it banned. So, while I have never been surprised to hear of protests and boycotts against Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, I do not come close to respecting them. I am also less than shocked when I hear the people, vehemently speaking out against these books, haven't bothered to read them. I'd like to think that a conscientious objector to Pullman's work would take the time to familiarize themselves with the words they hate. I'd like to think that, but I don't hold my breath.

The story begins with a young girl, Lyra Belacqua, in an alternate reality of our world. In the custody of Jordan College, she learns her uncle, Lord Asriel, is coming with important news from his latest scientific expedition. In a short amount of time, Lyra manages to thwart attempts to poison her uncle, learns of a mysterious and controversial substance called Dust, and finds out that her best friend, Roger, is the latest in a long list of children to go missing without explanation. All of this sends her on a whirlwind adventure to rescue her friend, and also to learn the secret of Dust.

Before her adventure begins with the lovely Mrs. Coulter, an authority within the Magesterium (think Vatican turned Parliament), she receives a long-held gift from Jordan's headmaster. It's an althiometer, or "golden compass," which is a rare and perplexing device. In her travels, she quickly learns it is used as a way of sussing out the truth of important questions and other matters. It also aides her in learning Mrs. Coulter has ulterior motives for taking Lyra under her wing.

The story builds into a race towards the unknown that puts any Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, or Luke Skywalker adventure right to shame (in my humble opinion). Lyra has several allies through her tale in this first piece of the trilogy. There's her constant companion and daemon—not demon—Pantamalion, a shape-shifting animal representation of Lyra's soul (all humans in this alternate universe have a daemon). There's Iorek Byrnison, a disgraced and dethroned king of the Panserbjorne (warrior-class polar bears). Plus, a host of sea-faring brethren to her friend Roger, that join her in her quest to save him. There's even a little help from a witch or two.

The Golden Compass is an intricate and captivating escapade through a world that is close enough to our own that we don't get lost or out of touch with what's happening, in spite of the absolutely fantastic events and characters populating Lyra's world. Characters are vividly drawn out through Pullman's penmanship, and I can think of few children's stories I would place above this one.

The pace is taut and the few moments of downtime for Lyra in her travels are filled up with small revelations about her past and the relationships of those around her. She comes to learn the true nature of why she was orphaned, the true identities of her parents, the importance of Dust to both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, and the reason for Roger's and other children's disappearances. For a girl who began this story wanting nothing more than to play war with her friends and traipse along Jordan's rooftops, Lyra comes to realize she has a lot of growing up to do and she'll have to do it in a short amount of time. The confines of her world inside Jordan College's walls became too small for her, and when her adventure reaches it's head, she'll know there's no turning back to the life she once knew.

I could say I recommend this book, this trilogy, to any fan of books. That would be an understatement of sorts. I must say this should be required reading for anyone young or young at heart, and especially for those who have lost that spark of childhood from their lives. If you end up being one of the petty few who are offended by this book and others like it, I pity you. I truly do.


  1. I think that the way Pullman wrote out Lyra's character is fascinating. I think of her when building the characters in my stories sometimes.

  2. Loved this book. At the end of the series I wasn't quite so sure, but I definitely liked this first one. Quality writing, characterization, tension, world-building - it's a classic YA fantasy. Great review!

    I have an award for you here.

  3. Great review. I loved this one. The whole trilogy is so awesome.

  4. Jeremy - Lyra did stand out as the most well-defined character throughout, though she was one of many with a breath of life.

    Celia - The climax of the series was nowhere near where I expected it to go, but I enjoyed it just the same. A tad ambiguous, but maybe it needed to be that way.

    Bella - A stellar trilogy, which I hope to have reviewed in its entirety before the end of the year.