The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman – review

THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman
(His Dark Materials, Book One)
Ballantine Books, 1995, 351 pgs, ISBN: 0-345-41335-0, Mass Market Paperback, $6.99

Genre: Fantasygoldencompass

I don’t have a lot to say prior to this review except that I’m so glad I read this book. It’s been recommended to me for years, and it’s entirely my fault that I haven’t read it before now. Following the completion of Anansi Boys, I’ll be moving on to The Subtle Knife

As I’m sure many others are doing right now, I began reading The Golden Compass in preparation for the upcoming film. Which isn’t to say that I went out and purchased it for that purpose. No, I already had a copy that I’d received many years ago as a Christmas gift. Somehow, I had never managed to read it. I suppose that my initial inspection of the summary had led me to believe that it was a modern day tale with a modern day little girl, and at the time that just wasn’t what I wanted to read.

Seeing the movie trailer changed all that. Not because of the visuals (and, Lord knows, they’re gorgeous), but because it showed me what kind of world I’d be introduced to. My misconception of what the story would be like was clear to me. It wasn’t a run of the mill “little girl ends up doing something she never expected in a world she’s never been with creatures she’s never seen.” No, that wasn’t it at all.

After completing The Golden Compass, I realize just how much that wasn’t the case. Certainly Lyra makes discoveries over the course of the novel, but it doesn’t feel like a strange and foreign thing. Lyra might as well be an explorer. It’s simply in her nature to ask questions and poke about, to get into scrapes and get dirty. Once she sets her mind on something, she pursues it relentlessly, whether it’s fighting with other children or going on a rescue mission that spans thousands of miles. Lyra is a unique and remarkable girl who doesn’t let a little thing like ‘not knowing’ get in her way. If she doesn’t know, she finds out.

And, my goodness, can she ever talk. She talks herself out of more situations (or, sometimes, into them). She’s quick witted and figures out what to say when in order to twist the moment to her advantage. She’s tenacious and compassionate, and I like her for all of those reasons.

There are some parts of the book that I’m still trying to understand — mostly, the story behind Dust. Sure, I follow all of the explanations, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around it in a way that will help me understand the characters’ obsession with it. I expect the next two books will further illuminate the topic, and I’m looking forward to that.

The concept of the daemons is wonderful. It’s just the kind of thing that I would have wanted as a child (oh, heck, I’d still love to have one). Daemons are so much a part of Lyra’s world that the very concept of anyone not having their soul companion is unthinkable. It’s what separates humans from other creatures, and reading the scenes that threaten to separate Lyra and Pantalaimon are heartbreaking.

While I won’t divulge any of the plot, I will say that it wasn’t what I was expecting. The beginning of the novel in no way lets on to what will be happening at the end, though all the pieces are there, being slowly revealed to the reader. I would have never foreseen the events of the last two chapters, and even while I was reading them, I couldn’t believe what was happening. The story is simultaneously exhilarating and tragic, and the last chapter leaves a clean opening for the book that follows.

I only recently purchased the His Dark Materials Omnibus that was released this year, and I find it of interest that there are new excerpts to each book, which the author calls “Lantern Slides.” They’re short snippets which seem to randomly fill in bits of information that, while not imperative to the story, are interesting to know just for being a fan of the work.



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