The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman was published in 1995. In the UK the novel is titled Northern Lights, but The Golden Compass is the USA title. It is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. In 2007, a major film was released starring Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, et al. The edition of the novel that I read is the Del Rey 1997 edition.
In my edition, the famous author Terry Brooks (Cp. The Shannara series) wrote a short one-page introduction. I was rather unenthused about reading the novel, but after Brooks’ introduction, I was drawn into reading it. I do not always read introductions, but I have to say that Brooks’ intro was so encouraging that I plowed right into the book.
I have said this so often during the past year that I am beginning to sound like the oft-mentioned broken record, but here it is again. You are going to love The Golden Compass. It is a claim you have heard about other books, and it hasn’t always turned out to be true. So why should you believe it this time? What makes this such a great book? Let me give you some reasons.
The novel is divided into three main parts with a total of 23 chapters. The parts are locations wherein the story mainly takes place.
The novel is written with a mellow tone and style that definitely makes it seem like it is fit for young adult audiences. However, I really do not think this is a book for children or for young adults. I do feel it is a book for adults. My big worry that I was reading some lame children’s book was set aside. However, the main character of the book is a young girl. Lyra Belacqua is a twelve-year old orphan of sorts living at Jordan College as something of a ward, but more like a pest. Her whole life changes because of her penchant for mischief and curiosity; she sneaks into the Retiring Room at the College wherein the masters and scholars are about to receive an important guest: Lord Asriel.
The story takes place in a parallel universe to ours, in which exists the Magisterium, a body of the Church in that world which guards against heresy. The neat gimmick of the novel is that human souls exist externally in the form of a “dæmon,” an animal which constantly accompanies his master. Due to some of these considerations and some other elements, the Church and many Christian organizations decried this novel (and film) calling it atheistic or subversive. For example, the name of Lord Asriel is probably a reference to Azrael, a name of the Angel of Death in mythology. However Asriel is also an anagram for “Israel.” In this manner one can interpret the novel as a criticism against the Church and/or the Magisterium. After having read the novel, I feel to do this is a bit absurd. This novel is pure fiction – a fantasy novel. It does not purport to be anything else. While some of the terminology or concepts might seem to be allusions to real world organizations and beliefs, ultimately, it is our own perspectives seeing tilting at windmills. The associations between the items in the book and the supposedly connected items in the real are tenuous and vague. I sincerely doubt this book was supposed to represent a great treatise against any religion and I doubt it will affect anyone’s faith in any way whatsoever.
I was really surprised to see many of the steampunk elements in the novel. At first, I expected some sort of Hogwarts/Roke Island sort of story. And, of course, I expected the main character to be entirely too headstrong and foolish. Also, I was unsure what to make of the dæmons. In chapter 4, Lyra is enticed by Mrs. Coulter to go to London. Mrs. Coulter is one of those immediately dislikeable characters that somehow we all know in real life. She’s conniving and manipulative, but shines in her role as socialite and gadfly. Of course, as a reader I was drawn into the story at this point, really not liking what Mrs. Coulter was trying to turn Lyra into. After this section of the book, I realized that Lyra was not going to be the bratty, dim-witted child that I thought I would have to suffer. Instead, Lyra develops into a really well-balanced, courageous, and reasonable creature. And maybe that’s actually the biggest fantasy in the book – it is probably impossible for any twelve-year old to be so reasonable.
As the story progresses, more elements of steampunk occur. There are a number of noble-souled individuals who help Lyra along, but she is often left to her own devices relying on her own wits to problem solve. I really like the characters of the bears and the witches. (I did mention this is fantasy, right?) Bears who talk, run kingdoms, build armor, and who have a deep code of honor are really neat things to read about. And I admit, I got attached to the character Iorek Byrnison, an exiled bear. I think the book had a great balance of steampunk, fantasy, realism, and science in it. Around halfway, I was thinking I might be giving the book four stars. However, after finishing it, I realize I would be withholding a star for no real good reason. Compared to the other books I have read and rated, I think this deserves the five stars – even if it is not a story that would interest every reader.