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The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass
by Phillip Pullman

Since I didn't want to see the movie without having read the book first, and we had some gift cards for Borders, I figured, what the heck?

Overall, and keeping in mind that it is a children's book, I give The Golden Compass a solid 7 out of 10.


Just in case you don't know what the story's about. It takes place in an alternate world, around the turn of the century. The Catholic church holds sway, in the medieval sense: they meddle in politics, have their own political, social, and scholarly agencies, and determine the path of scientific study and the eventual interpretation of findings. People have daemons, “other halves” of their souls that manifest as animals. It is this last concept around which the story revolves: the relationship between human and daemon.

In a nut shell: we follow a little girl named Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon. Lyra lives at Oxford college; her parents were killed and she’s financially supported by her rich, famous uncle Asriel. Two things happen to shake up Lyra’s world: children all over England, including her friend Roger, start to disappear, and Lyra is whisked into the care of a charismatic--and creepy--lady. When she learns that the lady is responsible for the disappearances, Lyra runs away. Thus begins her quest to find her friend Roger, rescue her uncle, and learn what’s happening to the missing children.

For a better synopsis, also laden with spoilers, go here.

The good bits:

This book's setting is rich, for a children's book. It's very Victorian steam-age grandeur, and though Pullman only gives glimpses of detail, they're enough to set one's imagination into a flurry. Especially nice is his awareness of terminological consistency: never once do we see the word "electricity," as the term is "anbaric," and "oil lamp" would not be as evocative as "naptha." He's very sensitive to details such as this, and as a result the world has a realism and depth that goes beyond simple description.

Pullman's cosmology is consistent and not belabored. We don't have to be told that some form of Catholicism rules this world; Pullman shows us this by consistently referring to the Church, and giving us glimpses of its ritual and politics. We don't have to be told how the link between animal and daemon works, because he shows us with a phrase here, a description there. We don't need him to outline the political and social norms, because we can see it for ourselves the status of the gyptians or the awed respect folks have for the witches. It's all in the turn of phrase and consistent application of terms, really.

All of this he manages to pull of with a minimum of words.

The neutral bits:

The plot comes together with a weirdness only plausible in children’s literature. It turns out that Lyra’s uncle is, in fact, her father. Oh? And that strange, scary lady, Mrs. Coulter, who inexplicably takes such a strong interest in Lyra she has to “adopt” her as a protégé cum research assistant? She’s actually Lyra’s mother.

The gyptian family with whom Lyra has an uneasy alliance? Whose youngest child is one of the first in Oxford to be taken, and whose eldest brother finds Lyra when she runs away from Mrs. Coulter? Who shelter her and help her make her escape out of London? Yes, well, it turns out that the mother of the family was Lyra’s nursemaid. Used to work for Mrs. Coulter, don’t you know. Loved Lyra since she was a baby, don’t you know.

Improbable hand-of-the-gods occurrences are common currency in this novel. It’s dripping with the kind of what-the-fuckery that only works, once again, in children’s literature.

The bad bits:

The biggest problem I had, hands down, was Lyra’s relationship with Iorek the bear. In brief: there’s a race of bears that are intelligent and skillful metalworkers, as well as being fierce warriors, and Lyra meets one and befriends it. In fact, according to Pullman, Lyra comes to love the bear, like the dearest friend she’s ever had. But when does this happen? I’m sorry, but their whole friendship completely flummoxed me; when did this transformation take place? When Lyra first meats Iorek, she’s terrified of him. Absolutely terrified. And at no time do they share a “moment,” or have anything resembling a breakthrough. I can get how Iorek could have attached himself to Lyra. Here’s this little human cub, and he’s ordered by his boss to protect her, and she does go out of her way to be honorable towards him and speak with him, and she’s rather impetuous and willful and brave, so I can see how he could be attached. But where’s her attachment? Is it just that Iorek is super cuddly? Is it a hero-worship sort of thing, like, “he’s strong and protects me, and while he’s gruff I know he’s got to have a heart of gold because he’s so soft and fluffy?” The attachment, I get. The friendship, I get. The deep love? That, I missed. They just didn’t seem to have the time to get that close. So I give Pullman a D for this bit of writing.

Also, he pulls a total Stephen King at the ending. The writing is rushed, yet he takes the time to have Lyra overhear a painfully drawn-out dialogue between Asriel and Mrs. Coulter. The ehtire conversation is like, wtf? Why are you talking about this here, now? Don’t you notice Lyra sitting there listening to you? Are you even paying attention to what’s going on? Are you completely off your rockers? Terrible, terrible ending. I give it a staunch F.

I would write more--the book deserves a more comprehensive review than this--but Nate's going to be waking up any minute and I'm really pushing my luck writing even this much!

For as good as the story started, the ending was so poorly executed that I’m debating bothering with the next two novels.


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