Philip Pullman is an Oxford graduate with a fair-sized body of work
already under his belt, including the trilogy of Victorian thrillers
The Ruby in the Smoke, Shadow in the North, and The Tiger
in the Well. The first book of his new fantasy series has been
loudly lauded as the kind of thing that "only comes once in a
generation," worthy of the company of Tolkien's "Lord of the
Rings," C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia," and L'Engle's A Wind
in the Door. It may be a bit early for such comparisons (let's see
how the next few books go...), but The Golden Compass does deserve
to be read by those both young and old who have enjoyed those classics.
Originally published in Great Britain as His Dark Materials 1:
Northern Lights in 1995, The Golden Compass "forms the first
part of a story in three volumes." This book is set in a universe
similar to ours but different in several important aspects, one of
those differences being that people have tangible souls in the form of
animal-shaped "daemons." The second book is to be set in our universe,
and the third book will move between the two.
Lyra Belacqua, a street-savvy and sassy little girl, takes the lead
role. Raised and haphazardly educated by Oxford scholars, she has
until now led a largely carefree and unconfined life. When her uncle,
Lord Asriel, returns to Oxford from exploring in the North, he brings
back word of strange events, mysterious Dust, and a photograph showing
a city in the Aurora Borealis. His reports pique Lyra's insatiable
curiosity and set in motion the wheels of her fate. Children begin to
go missing, stolen by mysterious unseen "Gobblers," and Lyra herself is
taken away from Oxford to live with the attractive but cunning Mrs.
Coulter. When Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, discover that their
new caretaker is herself behind the abductions of the missing children,
they escape to the safety of the water-faring folk, the gyptians. With
them, Lyra and Pantalaimon will journey to the far North in an effort
to rescue the stolen children and, if possible, exact vengeance. What
they will find in the frozen North are some things horrifying, some
achingly beautiful, and some truly awesome. Lyra's journey becomes a
life and death struggle that will end in her deciding whether or not to
take the role Destiny has decreed for her.
The language in The Golden Compass is toned down to a level of
readability by a younger audience, but many of its themes and allusions
are more than heavy enough for adults: the nature of the soul and
where it resides, the corrupting nature of power, the suffocating
sternness of a powerful Church. A quote from Paradise Lost
precedes the book, and Milton is hardly childish reading. Another interesting
aspect of the story is its resistance to categorization. There are corporeal
souls, talking polar bears, and flying witches, but there are also scientists
studying, classifying and quantifying their universe. It is the same
edge-blurring blend of pure fantasy and very soft science fiction that makes a
real separation of SF&F impossible.
It's good to know outright that this is first in a series. The ending
would be an end-of-season cliffhanger episode if it were made for TV.
Of course, fantasy readers thrive on that kind of thing; no one would
ever finish "The Lord of the Rings" if some of us didn't have that
special tolerance. The Golden Compass has the potential to be
a part of a greater whole. Time will tell, but this book is worth the
risk of commitment to several more.