Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Golden Compass Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Scholastic
Genre: Young Adult, Steampunk
Series: His Dark Materials Book One
Pages: 399

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The Golden Compass is one of the greatest, albeit controversial, children’s fantasy books that has been written.   The first book in a trilogy called His Dark Materials, author Philip Pullman structures his series around an inverted retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The controversy of Pullman’s stories settle around the fact the books are geared towards children and include themes such as the importance of sex and romantic relationships to the maturation of a child, and the corruption of humanity that is brought upon by religion and the church.  However other themes like the importance of freewill, the dangers of ignorance, and the recognition that good and evil should only represent a person’s choices and not their identity are universal themes and ideas that anyone can appreciate.

The depth of which Pullman’s book explores all of these above issues makes this trilogy for adults as much as it is for children.  Add in some inventive magical devices, fascinating cultures and characters, and a quick moving plot and you have The Golden Compass: one of the best children’s fantasy books.

The Golden Compass takes place in a parallel universe to Earth, in England, that is reminiscent of Victorian aged England on Earth.  A number of differences between this version of Earth and the version of Earth readers live on are explored throughout the novel.  The most importance of these differences though involves daemons.  Every person living in this parallel world has a daemon that is attached to them that takes the permanent form of an animal, unless you are a child, then your daemon can constantly change forms.

The story follows a young girl, Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon who are enjoying their childhood while living at Jordan College in this parallel world.  When her intimidating Uncle, Lord Asriel returns, Lyra gets whisked along on adventure that involves kidnapped children, magic bearing witches, and armored polar bears.  As the danger increases Lyra learns shocking truths about why the children are going missing,  the covert agenda of the Magisterium (the powerful Church in this world), and the fate of her parents.

Pullman tackles a myriad of adult ideas and themes that have earned this series the reputation of having been one of the deepest and most well thought out children’s fantasy books.  For example, the magical element Dust, which in the book comes to symbolize human misery and suffering, and finding its source comes to represent the quest that Lord Asriel is undertaking.  Not only is this a quest for one character, but it’s an idea many readers on many different spiritual levels can relate to.  The daemons that are attached to all of the people in the book are symbolic representations of people’s souls, their final form’s representing a person’s identity.  Children’s daemons, whose forms are constantly changing, represent a young person’s search for themselves.

In many ways The Golden Compass is an exploration of the creation of humans.  Many of the plot ideas purposefully draw parallels to the bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The story of Adam and Eve is frequently mentioned, and Lyra starts to symbolically become associated as a new Eve in Pullman’s story.  Pullman contributes to his dark subject matter by introducing a fantastic cast of characters and some nifty magical items.

As far as endearing and likeable fantasy protagonists go, Lyra would have to be near the top of the list.  She has great courage and a wonderful sense of curiosity that helps readers explore this parallel version of our world along with her.  She never gets annoying or too self-righteous and her role as a metaphorical Eve is played to perfection.

Other fantastic character creations include Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter who each have very sharp and distinct personalities and are clouted in an aura of mystery.  Their ambiguous nature and morals along with their strong personalities help draw in readers to the conflicts that dominate this story.

The Golden Compass, called the Alethiometer in the book, is a magical device Lyra receives early in the book that has the ability to answer any question you ask it truthfully.  As it turns out Lyra is probably one of only a handful of people in the world who can read this compass, an ability she has naturally where as other people spend decades studying it.  As far as introducing deep thematic ideas and great plot points goes, giving a young child a compass that can answer any question truthfully does just that.

For a children’s book, His Dark Materials’ condemnation of the church is ballsy, the actions of some its characters are appalling, and its dark visual/character/thematic descriptions and ideas are sure to make Pullman’s story an all time classic in the fantasy genre.

Score: 9.7

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