The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in mass market), 399 pages, 1995

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: Pullman’s trilogy got mentioned a lot when Harry Potter was brought up, and a girl needs something to tide her over until the sixth Potter book, doesn’t she?

Synopsis: Lyra lives in a world much like our own, with a big exception being that each individual possesses a daemon in an animal form, Lyra’s being the shape-shifting Pantalaimon. While eavesdropping in a room of scholars, including her uncle, Lord Asriel, Lyra first learns about the mystical Dust, even though she can’t quite piece together what it is or what it does. There’s a suspicion that it has to do with the vanishing children in the area, and soon Lyra finds herself swept up in the mystery and adventure of a quest to the far north to discover the truth about Dust and the missing children. The Golden Compass is the first in the trilogy refered to as His Dark Materials, and is followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Why you should read this book: For a so-called children’s book, The Golden Compass leaves many, many books in the dust, including a lot of adult literature. Pullman isn’t afraid to throw some complexity into the idea of good vs. evil, and the book benefits greatly from this – it’s complexity that makes us human, after all, and Lyra and the other characters are practically jumping off the page they seem so real. Heck, even the talking bear has a formidable personality. Reading the book, you can imagine all of the usual turns another author’s novel might take – sentimental, lesson-learning, everyone changes for the better – but Pullman really lets the characters’ personalities influence their fate. Fun, suspense-filled, and unpredictable, the only thing better than reading The Golden Compass is the thought that there’s two more books to come.

Why you should avoid this book: Don’t be discouraged if the first fify or so pages don’t have you completely mesmerized – it’s setting up the book for all of the action in the next 350 pages, and it’s worth the wait. If you associate the fantasy genre with dragons and swords (and consider that a bad thing), you have no worries with The Golden Compass. You will, however, have to be partial to talking animals and a very unusual world (and how hard is that, really?).

Opening paragraph:

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table. The places here were laid with gold, not silver, and the fourteen seats were not oak benches but mahogany chairs with velvet cushions.

Fabulous quotes:

The word female only suggested female Scholars to Lyra, and she involuntarily made a face. To be exiled from the grandeur of Jordan, the splendor and fame of its scholarship, to the dingy brick-built boardinghouse of a college at the northern end of Oxford, with dowdy female Scholars who smelled of cabbage and mothballs like those two at dinner!
The Master saw her expression, and saw Pantalaimon’s polecat eyes flash red.
He said, ‘But suppose it were Mrs. Coulter?’
Instantly Pantalaimon’s fur changed from coarse brown to downy white. Lyra’s eyes widened.
‘She is by way of being acquainted with Lord Asriel. Your uncle, of course, is very concerned with your welfare, and when Mrs. Coulter heard about you, she offered at once to help. There is no Mr. Coulter, by the way; she is a widow. Her husband died very sadly in an accident some years ago; so you might bear that in mind before you ask.’

When she laid the alethiometer bare, it was Farder Coram who spoke first.
‘I never thought I’d ever set eyes on one of them again. That’s a symbol reader. Did he tell you anything about it, child?’
‘No. Only that I’d have to work out how to read it by myself. And he called it an alethiometer.’
‘What’s that mean?’ said John Faa, turning to his companion.
‘That’s a Greek word. I reckon it’s from aletheia, which means truth. It’s a truth measure. And have you worked out how to use it?’ he said to her.

Also recommended: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling; The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket.

Also by this author: The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass; Lyra’s Oxford; Clockwork; The Tiger in the Well; The Shadow in the North; The Ruby in the Smoke; I Was a Rat!…or The Scarlet Slippers; The Firework-Maker’s Daughter; The Tin Princess; The Broken Bridge; The Butterfly Tattoo; Thunderbolt’s Waxwork; The Gas-Fitters’ Ball; The Scarecrow and His Servant; Spring-Heeled Jack; Count Karlstein; Puss in Boots; Mossycoat; Aladdin.

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: Pullman had never done any professional illustrating until his publisher suggested having illustrations on the first page of each chapter, and Pullman volunteered to try it out himself. The American books only include the illustrations starting with the editions published in 2002.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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