4 / 5 Stars
Some books improve with age–the age of the reader, that is. Such is certainly the case with Philip Pullman’s heroic, at times heart-wrenching novel, The Golden Compass, a story ostensibly for children but one perhaps even better appreciated by adults. The protagonist of this complex fantasy is young Lyra Belacqua, a precocious orphan growing up within the precincts of Oxford University. But it quickly becomes clear that Lyra’s Oxford is not precisely like our own–nor is her world. For one thing, people there each have a personal dæmon, the manifestation of their soul in animal form. For another, hers is a universe in which science, theology, and magic are closely allied:
As for what experimental theology was, Lyra had no more idea than the urchins. She had formed the notion that it was concerned with magic, with the movements of the stars and planets, with tiny particles of matter, but that was guesswork, really. Probably the stars had dæmons just as humans did, and experimental theology involved talking to them.
Not that Lyra spends much time worrying about it; what she likes best is “clambering over the College roofs with Roger the kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum stones on the heads of passing Scholars or to hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on, or racing through the narrow streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war.” But Lyra’s carefree existence changes forever when she and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, first prevent an assassination attempt against her uncle, the powerful Lord Asriel, and then overhear a secret discussion about a mysterious entity known as Dust. Soon she and Pan are swept up in a dangerous game involving disappearing children, a beautiful woman with a golden monkey dæmon, a trip to the far north, and a set of allies ranging from “gyptians” to witches to an armor-clad polar bear.
I was honestly a little skeptical about this series when it was listed as required reading for my Introduction to Young Adult Literature class this semester. Honestly, I hadn’t even heard of His Dark Materials and I had no idea what it was even about.
That said, I went into it with an open mind and plenty of curiosity. I was immediately intrigued by Lyra’s world and her adventures and after the first few chapters, was hooked. The world of dæmons was a unique and thought-provoking one that took me by complete surprise. I absolutely loved the concept of dæmons being a persons’ soul and got me wondering what my own would be.
I adored the idea behind this book and was completely thrilled with the decisions Pullman made as an author to create a world that was so similar, yet so different from our own. The religious undertones were ones that I honestly could have done without and felt like the didn’t need to be included. I felt as though the plot could have been compared to something other than the church or religious ideas, but his choice made me as a reader feel as though he was very determined to isolate a certain kind of reader and make them question their own beliefs.
As someone who is not big on religion, I felt as though it was almost confusing with all the biblical references and it almost made it harder to follow along with the story, whereas if Pullman had created his own beliefs just for the book, where he was forced to elaborate more in depth on what was going on, I feel as though it would have flowed a bit better.
Perhaps this makes me someone who is not very well-read, or someone who ought to look deeper into their current reads, however as someone who thought this would be a good ‘curl up’ book, I don’t feel as though it was one that I could simply read and close feeling satisfied with the outcome. Instead, in order to fully grasp what was going on, I had to start looking up the biblical terms and references, which took away from the story itself.
Overall, as I said, this was a great plot and a brilliant idea. I absolutely loved the concept and was floored by the writing. The biblical moments made it really hard to continue reading without having to stop and think about, and that makes me feel as though the overall ‘idea’ took away from the story itself more than helped it.
If you’re looking for an easy read, this is not for you. However, if you want a book that makes you think and gives you a million and one other things to think about and contemplate before finally finishing the story overall, this is perfect.