The Story: The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, its UK title), by Philip Pullman, is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy (which also consists of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass). In this initial work, readers are introduced to the intelligent but slightly uncouth Lyra Belacqua and her animal-shaped daemon, Pantalaimon. Lyra and Pan find themselves pit against an unseen foe who is snatching children from the streets and sending them to the North to reluctantly participate in bizarre experiments. With the help of a magical device, nautical gypsies, witches, and warrior bears, Lyra travels to the northern wastelands and uncovers an unspeakable horror only she can stop. But not before she finds herself caught in its clutches.
My Take: My interest in this book was thanks to hearing about its film adaptation in 2007. While I never saw the movie, I did read the book and, to be fair, I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t love it but I don’t hate it. I sort of-kind of like it.
First, though, the good parts: Lyra is a spunky protagonist who is easy to root for. She’s resourceful, caring, eager to learn, and willing to put herself in harm’s way to save others. While her “talent” at lying didn’t entirely win me over, she mainly tells untruths to protect herself or others in dangerous situations, so I suppose it is mildly forgivable in those instances. While there are young female protagonists I like better than Lyra, she is by no means at the bottom of the list.
Also, the concept of daemons (i.e. physical manifestations of a person’s soul, not beings of a devilish persuasion) is brilliantly executed in terms of world-building. Granted, we’re not told why people in this fictional universe have daemons but it kind of isn’t needed. Their establishment as familiar spirits and the rules governing their existence are strong enough. I actually wished the book spent a little more time on the nature and purpose of daemons as opposed to some of its other elements, which cause the world-building to feel full and underdeveloped. (More on that in a bit though – we’re still covering the good parts!)
Lastly, I’m a sucker for stories set in northern regions. I love cold weather and snow, so it’s easy for me to mentally place myself in these environs. While Pullman’s descriptions can run a bit too close to the purple prose line for me, he does manage to make the sundry environments come to life in strikingly realistic detail. I had no problem witnessing the action in my head, which is the mark of strong, effective description. Along similar lines, the novel’s pacing is easy to take and is structured well. While not every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, I felt compelled to read on, and at no time did I recall not caring about what happened to Lyra.
However, there were some snags that, while not enough to make me put on my reading brakes and give up, were just enough to disrupt my enjoyment.
For starters, as strong as the presentation of the daemons is, the rest of the world-building becomes cluttered the longer the story goes. We’re introduced to a quasi-steampunk world redolent of London; Gyptian clans; witches; Tartars; armored bears; the alethiometer; and, of course, Dust, among other details. I know this is the first book in a trilogy, so some introductory world-building has to occur, but I sense this novel would have been stronger if it introduced just a few of these elements. The daemons are by far the strongest and best-established element, so they only needed to be flanked by a few other concepts. Instead, I got flooded with so many ideas, beings, devices, etc. that I felt like it was too much with too little explanation. Granted, I think the ideas behind most of these were good but it was a lot in a short space.
Two big instances of this were the alethiometer and Dust. Concerning the former, I did think it was an interesting device (not to mention it has a cool name), but I never thought its function nor purpose (other than trying to determine present and future events) were fully explained. How was one supposed to know what the symbols’ various levels of meaning were without somehow being told or taught? Was the device telepathically-linked to whoever was using it? Why was Lyra so adept at using it? Did her penchant for lying and inventing “stories” free her mind to work in ways a grownup’s mind couldn’t? While I appreciate the underlying message that symbols possess sundry levels of meaning, and I wasn’t expecting a full run-down on how the alethiometer worked, some aspects regarding its usage would have been beneficial, at least for me.
The concept of Dust was even more convoluted in my opinion. I know this particular element gets discussed at length in the other two books, but nothing in its set up here compelled me to want to learn more about its purpose in this story. It takes more than half of the novel to be given some sort of explanation; hence, by the time it arrived, I had ceased caring about it and allowed it to slip into the other world-building facets. Not to mention its explanation is laden with exposition against organized religion that just seems out of place (but more on that below).
While The Golden Compass doesn’t suffer from an inflated cast, I did take issue with how most of the adults were portrayed. Generally-speaking, the grownups are either overbearing or keep secrets from Lyra, so it’s as if an underlying message is that adults can’t be trusted. It seems like the only older character Lyra senses she can trust is John Faa, which is fine because I liked him; but even Faa seemed to hold information back at times. Likewise, Lyra appeared to come in two versions: the quiet, resourceful, intelligent girl and the dialectal-talking rough-and-tumble lass. At times, I felt her personality came from two different drafts. Either one of them could have worked, but the back-and-forth between Lyra the introspective gal and Lyra the ruffian was a bit tricky to follow and it did cause me to suffer a slight disconnect from her because of that.
But my biggest issue with this novel is that it’s marketed as either independent readers’ literature or young adult literature (as I’ve seen this novel shelved in both areas). That doesn’t seem like that big of a deal until you consider some of its themes. I have nothing against books that raise tough questions or unpopular opinions, but that doesn’t mean the topics under consideration are appropriate for all ages.
It will come as no surprise that this novel doesn’t view organized religion in a favorable light. Some readers tout this work is anti-Christian but I think it’s more anti-Catholic Church (at least as far as The Golden Compass is concerned). The Magisterium serves as the novel’s overarching antagonist, and the general sentiment from most of the main characters is that the Magisterium is meddlesome, at best, and a destructive force, at worst. There is simply too much to divulge without delving into spoiler territory, but I will say that the novel’s latter half acts almost like a sermon against basic Christian principles. Again, there isn’t anything wrong with asking questions but (1). an author needs to tell a story first, not preach a sermon, and (2). the intended market for this novel is far too young to be engaging these types of dialogues thanks to their overall maturity level.
For starters, we learn that Lyra was the product of an adulterous affair. While I suppose this does bring some degree of sympathy upon her, it surprised me to see it in a book for younger readers. But we also learn that Lyra’s parents aren’t the only folks who have flings. In a book for adults, this topic wouldn’t seem out of place, but to include it in a book for young readers is a bit unsettling. Yes, I know Pullman said his trilogy depicted realism, not fantasy (though I would argue that point), but that doesn’t mean every aspect of the “real world” needs to be conveyed to young readers. There are proper times, places, and ages for such discussions, but the typical ages reading independent reader lit aren’t generally it.
I feel even more strongly this way when it comes to the novel’s theological deconstructions. Dust, as it’s explained (no worries – this isn’t a spoiler), is the physical evidence of original sin (according to the novel) because God told Man he will return to dust (i.e. die) as a result of sin. The Magisterium teaches that Dust is evil and, thus, engages in experiments on children to devise ways to minimize its affects on adults. But Lyra (through Pan) concludes that since adults seem to tout how bad Dust is, then it must be good (hence another example of how adults are depicted as less than trustworthy). The novel gets a little more complicated (and convoluted) than that, but that’s Dust in a nutshell. Again, for adults, this can raise some good discussion about Christian theology, but for young readers who aren’t mature enough to understand, it could potentially implant the idea that sin (i.e. doing wrong/bad things) is fun and okay.
Again, these are all my opinions, but since I try to keep my reviews honest, I felt the need to bring these two sticking points to light. They weren’t issues for me personally, but they could be issues for young or less mature readers. In the end, this novel is fun but kind of fluffy despite how deep it tries to be. Plot-wise it’s consistent and character-wise it’s engaging, but some of the ideas and world-building feel half-finished. Likewise, there are topics and issues that are fine for adults to engage and discuss but not so much younger readers, at least not the age group the book is typically marketed for.
Language – There may be a handful of British profanities or mild choice words but it’s not pervasive and they’re easily overlooked.
Violence – Most of the violence occurs during battle sequences where we’re only told the action taking place but never immersed in graphic details. The exception to this is when two non-human characters engage in a fight to the death and one of them is graphically slain, which includes a violent, bloody act as a show of dominance after the other party has been killed. It didn’t turn my stomach but the squeamish among us might not care for it albeit it is a quick scene. Lastly, the experiments performed on the missing children, while not graphic in and of themselves, make for some tense moments.
Sexual Material – While nothing is actually depicted, there is talk of characters having affairs. Two characters’ daemons also frolic and fondle each other as their humans essentially do the same; while this isn’t overtly sexual, the actions are clearly sensual. Likewise, there is a veiled implication that puberty brings problems associated with raging hormones though nothing further is explained. Lastly, someone manhandles Lyra’s daemon and the effect it has on her is akin to inappropriate touching. As she feels the stranger’s hands on her daemon, Lyra feels violated, too, even though the person isn’t directly touching her. Again, this isn’t overtly sexual but the symbolism of assault is strongly implied.
I’m really on the fence with this one. I don’t hate The Golden Compass and it does bring its worlds to life with an interesting cast of characters and relatively solid description, which can be hard to come by. Yet the world-building suffers from too much too soon and inadequate explanation. Likewise, some of its themes seem vastly out of place in a book usually shelved for older children.
For adults, this is a decent pick if you can overlook the anti-religion postulating in its latter half though it makes great discussion material; but for kids and teens, this is iffy. I’m a firm believer that parents and guardians need to know what the young ones in their care are reading, and books like The Golden Compass can’t be overlooked. Some things are best left for another time and an older age, and some of the issues here are no exception; so discretion needs to be used before handing this book off to kids or young teens.