Friday, November 25, 2011

THE GOLDEN COMPASS


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.

4 comments:

  1. Did anyone else think it was odd, though, that all servants have dog daemons? If a daemon is someone's soul that seems to imply that certain people are, in their very soul, born to be servants.

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  2. I thought it was a little strange, but I think this could be a question of nature versus nurture. Perhaps the children who know they will someday become servants are molded by their parents and society to conform to expectations and have a dog as a daemon. Rather than being inherently less creative or ambitious, they limit the expression of any talent that would mark them as non-conformist.

    I think anyone who has survived adolescence has seen plenty of examples of this sort of thing. I immediately think of girls who downplay their intelligence because they are afraid boys won't like them if they seem too smart.

    That said, I have to admit that looking back, limiting the servants to only dog daemons does smell a bit classist.

    Of course, there are plenty of examples in literature of bumbling bowing and scraping servants, who because of their social position are treated as less capable and intelligent than their aristocratic counterparts. Dobby from Harry Potter springs painfully to mind.

    I think it is interesting that I did not notice the servants until you pointed it out, but if all of women in the story had only dog daemons, I would have been outraged.

    I am a huge fan of Phillip Pullman. The first two books of HIS DARK MATERIALS have a spot on my list of favorite novels of all time. Now, I think I am going to reread THE GOLDEN COMPASS again and see what I think of it as an adult.

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  3. Suzanne makes an excellent point. I didn't notice the dog daemons at all, but I did notice there were no women at the college, and Lyra's been raised to think women are boring and inferior. I know that changes as the story continues, but I'm so tired of reading about people having to learn that women are indeed human and capable. I read the entire book, but I didn't continue with the series.

    Anyway, good review! I trust your judgement, so now I think I have a better idea why so many people love this book. The world-building was pretty awesome.

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  4. @ Iliadfan - I know what you mean. I think in cases like this authors are attempting to capture real life struggles and prejudices that their audience might be able to relate to or at least recognize, but sometimes I just want to read about women who are doing awesome things without any "*GASP* but she's a woman!"

    It's always fun reading stories where the entire society is structured extremely differently from our own. The Black Jewels by Anne Bishop comes to mind, probably because I'm re-reading it now. It's very dark, but the premise is so intriguing: gender roles are entirely reversed from our history with women holding the upper hand and men fighting for an equal place.

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