fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Philip Pullman His Dark Materials The Golden CompassThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass (or, if you follow the British print-run, Northern Lights) is the first book of Philip Pullman‘s extraordinary, controversial, thought-provoking, fascinating, infuriating, allegorical trilogy His Dark Materials. Followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, the books have a huge range of ideas and meanings; from exploring the bond between the body and soul, to denouncing modern religious practices, to retelling Milton’s Paradise Lost from a completely different point of view. Throughout, the story is compelling and beautifully told, the source of endless debates and discussions, and a narrative with such an extreme and unique message that (even if you don’t agree with it) you have to admire the sheer gall that Pullman has in delivering it within a book aimed for children.

This first part is set in a parallel world that contains England’s Oxford, very much like ours but with some major differences. For starters, it feels like a turn-of-the-century time period, though more astonishing are creatures known as “daemons”, who are soon revealed to be the external presence of human souls in animal forms. Every single human being has one, who is bonded inexorably to their human. In this world lives a young girl named Lyra, an orphan placed in the care of Jordan College. Lyra is a half-wild creature, who’s perfectly happy in her life of exploration, fighting, telling stories and daring feats with her particular friend Roger and of course her beloved daemon Pantalaimon.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBut something is slowly disrupting Lyra’s happy existence, and events seem to be on the move that she cannot begin to understand. After she creeps into the men-only Retiring Room of the College she overhears an astonishing conversation that results in her saving her uncle Asriel’s life. There she first hears the idea of “North.” Captivated by this dream of snow, ice and the Northern Lights, Lyra is only distracted by another looming threat — creatures known as the Gobblers. Throughout the streets of England, children are disappearing, and their mysterious fates are blamed on “the Gobblers.” Who or what these creatures are become vitally important to Lyra once Roger disappears, and she vows to find him and bring him back to safety.

And so, from the home of the beautiful and sinister Mrs Coulter and her vindictive golden monkey daemon, to the canal boats and fierce loyalty of the gyptains (water-gypsies), to the magnificent scope of the north, where talking armored bears roam the snow and witches fly on pine-branches through the sky, and finally into the clutches of the terrible Gobblers themselves. To guide her is a precious artifact, a device known as an altheiometer (the namesake of the book) that can answer any question posed to it by use of arrows that point to various pictures around its edge, and a mysterious substance known as “Dust,” that everyone seems to hate and fear.

What is Dust? What is the link between it, daemons and children? What force causes the altheiometer to work? What are Lord Asriel’s plans? What is Lyra’s part to play in all of this? And what lies beyond the Northern Lights? Pullman raises a myriad of intriguing questions that keep you turning pages all through this book, and the next two. With almost effortless skill he creates the three-dimensional world of Oxford, with all its winding streets, shaky buildings and colorful characters. In terms of ‘fantasy’ lands, the Oxford that Pullman has created ranks up there with the best sub-created worlds in literature, and he visits it again in the small novella Lyra’s Oxford.

Philip Pullman is just brimming with original and fascinating ideas, from the enigma of Dust, to the presence of daemons to the carefully constructed altheiometer that Lyra soon masters. On top of this we have a usurped bear-kingdom with a false king, a beautiful witch in love with a mortal, aging man, a Texan aeronaut who flies a balloon, and a secret concerning Lyra’s own parentage. The layers and detail that Pullman manages to pack into this work is just astounding, and you can read it over and over again, finding something new each time.

Which brings me to Lyra herself. A refreshing change from the usual female-figures of literature, this young girl is bad-tempered, bratty, determined and even somewhat selfish. To a point I feel that Pullman may have gone a tad over the top in adding these emotions to his young heroine, as later on in the book it was rather hard for me to reconcile these less-than-outstanding attributes to the love and devotion that she later displays. Of course, in many ways this is a coming-of-age story, and one must start out as a spoilt child in order to grow to a deeper sense of maturity — and throughout is the presence of Pan, who often reveals the more vulnerable side to Lyra’s temperament. But for any adult expecting to find a role model for their children, it’s doubtful you’ll find it here, as her greatest gift in life is her ability to create and maintain believable lies — and she’s immensely proud of this skill!

Another word of warning — there are elements of anti-Christianity at work, especially as the series goes on. It’s not too noticeable in this first book, but the Catholic Church is unfortunately portrayed in a very black light. However, unless you are an extremely close-minded and/or sensitive Christian, it’s reasonably easy to read Pullman’s work as a criticism against power, corruption and control rather than religion itself — and let’s face it, the Catholic Church doesn’t exactly have a spotless record in the course of human history. And ultimately, you don’t have to agree with a book’s message to enjoy reading it.

And please don’t think that the “daemons” are supposed to be demonic — that’s just silly. Our word “demon” is based on a Greek word “daimon” which means “soul.” Yes, that’s right — our word “demon” comes from a word meaning “soul”!


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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