Review of THE GOLDEN COMPASS by PHILIP PULLMAN
(first in HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy)
This is truly a work worthy of exuberant admiration. In HIS DARK MATERIALS, Pullman creates a vivid, detailed world with a grand, epic plot, complicated politics, and a varied assortment of memorable characters and relationships.
The book is fast-paced. Near the very start Lyra, our eleven-year-old protagonist, prevents an attempted murder and, through spying, learns of a mysterious substance called Dust, the mention of which seems to rile and rankle the adults around her. From there, it’s one climatic event after another as Lyra finds herself swept up in an intricate journey. She moves from one clear goal to the next, but throughout the book the sense builds that Lyra has a greater purpose, one she doesn’t know about yet and probably wouldn’t even understand if she did.
Let me backtrack and describe this world a little bit. Lyra lives at Jordan College in what seems an alternate universe to our own rather than a completely fictional construction. The geography is very similar, but history is quite different. What strikes me as the most obvious difference, however, is the dæmons. Every person is mystically linked to an animal, their dæmon, essentially a physical manifestation of their soul. Children’s dæmons can shapeshift into any creature, often symbolic of the human’s emotions, but during puberty the dæmon starts to remain in one form more than others until by adulthood it never changes from that form again. Do I need to mention the incredible metaphorical power of Pullman’s premise? And I’m only giving you a concise summary of an elaborate society. Pullman has carefully considered his imagined universe and understands how dæmons fit into this world. For example, when two people interact, so will their dæmons; however, the relationship between the latter is often all the more telling. Another intriguing fact is that humans, while they frequently touch their own dæmons, will never lay hands on another’s. As Lyra informs us, no one ever told her not to touch another person’s dæmon and yet she instinctually knows it’s forbidden, not by law but nature: it’s an unspoken rule.
Lyra is awesome. This story wouldn’t be half as incredible without her as the lead. She’s a spunky, fierce, brave, arrogant, funny, outspoken child who causes all kinds of mischief both mundane and heroic. Nor is she the only likable character. I personally adore books with a huge cast. I’ve met many people who don’t, because they say it becomes tricky to keep track of everyone, but I feel books overstuffed with characters both major and minor are far more realistic. Also, some authors (yes, Pullman) can pull it off and not once did I find myself mixing up characters or forgetting who someone was. Pullman shows us at least a little of everyone’s mind. Though there are lots of characters I adored, they never feel like cookie cutter heroes; each individual has their own morals, opinion, and vibrant personality. The villains are easy to pick out, but most of them believe they are doing right, not just for them but for the world.
You will find every kind of emotion you can imagine in these pages from Lyra’s comedic, childish tomfoolery to the complicated adult romances she can’t yet comprehend to tragic losses that strike the reader with real grief. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: this is a beautiful, allegorical story about growing up both as an individual and as one tiny part of a huge, complex world.