The Golden Compass is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I started reading it with my son, but ended up finishing it on my own after realizing it’s a little too mature for a nine-year-old.
“You cannot change what you are, only what you do.”
Title: The Golden Compass
Author: Philip Pullman
Published April 1996 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers (first published 1995)
Genre: YA Fantasy
Page Count: 399
“Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal–including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.
Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want–but what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other.”
The Golden Compass is an epic adventure that begins in a parallel universe at Jordan College in Oxford, England. Lyra is a twelve-year-old girl who lives at Jordan College with her daemon Pantalaimon. Every human has a daemon, which is a physical representation of the human soul. The daemons of children can change forms, but once the child becomes an adult the daemon remains in the same form. She was left at Jordan College by her Uncle Lord Asriel, a military leader. Lyra’s best friend is a kitchen boy named Roger Parslow, who goes missing. There are many missing children, and Lyra believes they’ve been taken by The Gobblers. One day a politician named Marisa Coulter comes to Jordan College talking about a trip North. Lyra knows her Uncle Lord Asriel has gone North and wants to find him. She agrees to go with Ms. Coulter and be her assistant. Before she leaves she’s given an alethiometer (the golden compass), and believes it is her mission to give it to her Uncle Lord Asriel.
“It lay heavily in her hands,the crystal face gleaming, the brass body exquisitely machined. It was very much like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of a compass there were several little pictures with extraordinary precision, as if on ivory with the slenderest sable brush. She turned the dial around to look at them all. There was an anchor; an hourglass surmounted by a skull; a bull, a beehive…..Thirty-six altogether and she couldn’t even guess what they meant.”
With the help of Farder Coram and John Faa, Lyra travels to the North where she meets new friends like an armored bear named Iorek Byrnison, balloonist Lee Scoresby, and my favourite character, witch queen Serafina Pekkala. I wanted more about her, and am hoping the next book gives me more of her back story and life.
“You are so young, Lyra, too young to understand this, but I shall tell you anyway and you’ll understand it later: men pass in front of our eyes like butterflies, creatures of a brief season. We love them; they are brave, proud, beautiful, clever; and they die almost at once. They die so soon that our hearts are continually racked with pain. We bear their children, who are witches if they are female, human if not; and then in the blink of an eye they are gone, felled, slain, lost. Our sons, too. When a little boy is growing, he thinks he is immortal. His mother knows he isn’t. Each time becomes more painful, until finally your heart is broken. Perhaps that is when Yambe-Akka comes for you. She is older than the tundra. Perhaps, for her, witches’ lives are as brief as men’s are to us.”
Although Lyra is brave and smart, she’s also a spoiled brat without manners. The characters felt flat to me, lacking personality, and desires, I just couldn’t connect with them.
“We are all subject to the fates. But we must act as if we are not, or die of despair.”
The writing itself is stunning. The world-building is pretty good, although there are some things left unexplained (such as daemons). The plot is relatively fast-paced, creating an exciting story that had me hooked from the beginning. There’s a lot of debate about the anti-religious themes. A nun in the book does say Christianity is a “powerful mistake”. In interviews Pullman has said things like he is trying to undermine Christianity through his work. The Golden Compass is about the search for Dust, which basically represents sin. Children have no “dust” on them, while adults do. The villains in the book are trying to find a way to prevent Dust. Does this novel have anti-religious concepts, yes, however, I feel like it didn’t add or take away from the narrative. The main problem with this book is that it is too mature for kids, yet immature for young adults.
“Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it. Death is going to die.”
Imaginative, exciting, whimsical, The Golden Compass is a great fantasy novel about spirituality, morality, the human soul, and science versus religion, that I recommend to anyone fourteen-years-old+ who like a plot-driven story with an unlikable protagonist.
“So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.”