“The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman (Knopf, 2003)

The Golden Compassstarstarstarstar

His Dark Materials Boxed Set: Part One of Three

Originally published as Northern Lights in 1995, this is the story of a young girl who doesn’t know what to do or what is going to happen with her life, but soon discovers that she is on a specific course of destiny that she is unable to avoid.  While The Golden Compass is considered a children’s book, like the Harry Potter series, it is written with an adult voice in an adult language, with adult themes.  It seems that British authors give their young readers a lot more credit that American authors.  The result is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy that is by no means “just a kid’s book.”

Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who spends her days roaming the many hallways and rooms of Jordan College, Oxford, where she makes friends with everyone regardless of class or status.  She’s just looking to have a good time and loves taking risks, whether it be climbing the roof of the college, or chasing and attacking the gyptians who show up every once in a while on the river.  This is a different world to ours, where everyday electricity doesn’t exist.  This is a world of zeppelins, steam and air powered machinery, gyroscopes and wheels and cogs, essentially a steam punk world.  Also in this world every person has what is known as a dæmon, essentially the embodiment of a person’s soul in the form of an animal.  When young, children’s dæmons can change form, but when they reach puberty the dæmon settles on a single form for the rest of their lives, giving one an insight into the person’s nature.

But Lyra’s world changes when first she saves her father, Lord Asriel, from being poisoned, and then learns of his work in the distant icy north where work is being done with something called Dust, the northern lights, and something about another world in the sky.  Lyra then meets Mrs. Coulter, who she immediately takes a liking to for she is so strong and impressive and knowledgeable, that is until Lyra discovers that she is the one who has been kidnapping children and taking them to the north for experimentation.  Managing to escape, Lyra joins with the gyptians who head north to find out what is going on with all this business about kidnapped children and Dust.  The rumors are terrible.  It is said that experimentation is being on separating children from their dæmons which, considering it is taboo for a person to even touch another’s dæmon, does not bode well for Lyra and the gyptians.

It is in the north that Lyra finally discovers everything that is going and more importantly, why it is happening, as well as a giant armored warrior polar bear, Iorek Byrnison, known as panserbjørne; and a Texan balloon-fighting man called Lee Scoresby.

His Dark Materials, in my opinion, is even better than the Harry Potter series for the subject matter is far more complex with truths that relate to every reader.  And with a move adaptation of The Golden Compass set for release on December 7th, now is the perfect time to read this magical series for the first time, or simply to reread it again.

Alternate Review

It is amusing to see how books branded as “children’s fantasy,” like Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia, once they are nationally and internationally recognized, suddenly become pieces of literature to be read and fully appreciated by adults and the literary world.  The Philip Pullman trilogy, His Dark Materials, now released as a boxed set, fits right into this category, to such an extent that it seems the third book, The Amber Spyglass, has such a depth and complexity that it could be fully appreciated by the literati.

The trilogy begins with the hero, Lyra, acting out her strange life in an alternative world which could have been like ours some time in the late medieval period, but is not.  There are inventions and technologies here that do not exist in this world; there are also similar articles that have a different or similar name; finally there are objects that have long been ousted as obsolete by our standards, but are still in common use, such as Zeppelins.  Lyra, in this strange world, must take a journey to rescue her father who is imprisoned in a distant land.  This first book ends with Lyra almost losing her life many times, and having to make a very important decision at the very end.

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Originally published on May 12th, 2003 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.