too many words by laura lemay

the golden compass, a book review

The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman, is part of a trilogy called His Dark Materials. I’ve been trying to write a review of all three books that runs shorter than about 10,000 words, and I can’t do it. So you’re going to get three separate reviews instead.

But here’s the main point I want to make about all three of these books. You can read this part and then skip the rest if you want to. I know I gush a lot in my book reviews. Every book is totally fabulous, a great read, run out and buy it right this second, etc, etc. But I mean it this time. I cannot say this more strongly: All three of the His Dark Materials books were easily the best books I read last year. They are some of the best fantasy/SF I’ve ever read, ever. Ever. You need to go read these books. If you read any fantasy at all your life is not complete until you have read these books. If you avoid fantasy because all of it is icky gooey faux-Tolkien elivsh stuff with titles like “Ellyria: The Sword of Prophecy,” I hear you, but this is different. Are you listening? You Must. Read. These. Books. Go to the bookstore now. Go now. Go.

The Dark Materials series is nominally for children, but you really don’t need to be a kid to read them. The books are by no means childish. They’re less childish than, say, Harry Potter. These are the sorts of books that can be read on many levels: a completely gripping fast-paced adventure tale, a richly woven epic spanning dozens of very real characters and multiple beautifully drawn worlds, or a philosophical treatise on humanity and morality and consciousness (no, really). There are parts of these books that are very dark, parts that are emotionally complex, and parts that are terribly, hauntingly sad. Its just astonishing how well these books are written, how well all the elements are put together. These are possibly are the maturest children’s books I’ve ever read.

His Dark Materials (the phrase is a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost{.broken_link}, which inspires much of the plot of the series) begins with The Golden Compass, which introduces us to the series’ heroine, 12-year-old Lyra Bellaqua. The world in which she lives feels vaguely like ours at the turn-of-the-century (the last one), but with a number of significant differences. The most important one is that people have an animal familiar, called a daemon, which represents that person’s inner personality. In children the daemon can change shape. In Lyra’s world religion is science is magic, and the government is the Magisterium, an inquisition-like theocracy that attempts to control every aspect of of thought and learning and politics.

Lyra is an orphan and she lives amongst the scholars at Jordan College in Oxford, England. At the start of the book she thwarts a plot to assisinate her uncle, Lord Asriel, who has come to Jordan to solicit money for an expedition to the arctic. There’s something strange going on at the north pole, as Asriel reveals: the northern lights appear to the the source of a strange substance called Dust, and Asriel has discovered what appears to be a city in the sky behind the lights. The Magisterium is apparently deeply threatened by Dust and whatever it represents.

Soon afterward children begin vanishing in Oxford and, it seems, all over England. The rumor is that mysterious bandits called gobblers are snatching them and taking them north where horrible things are happening to them. Lyra is sent from Jordan College to live with the charming but enigmatic Mrs. Coulter, who seems to know all about Lord Asriel and who promises to show Lyra the world. Before Lyra leaves the college, however, the college’s Master gives her a device called an alethiometer (the “compass” of the book’s title), which, she is told, can answer any question, if only she can learn to read it.

Lyra discovers soon enough that it is Mrs. Coulter herself who is behind the disappearances of the children, that it, too has something to do with Dust, and she runs away and joins a band of gyptians — water gypsies — on an expedition to the arctic to save the children.

And that’s just the first third of the book. Along the way there’s a witches prophecy where we learn that Lyra will eventually save the universe, but only if she doesn’t know that she has to; the discovery that the stolen children are being tortured in frightening experiments involving “intercision” (I won’t spoil it and tell you what intercision actually is); a battle for the leadership of a race of talking armored warrior polar bears, and finally a reunion with Lord Asriel who, we discover, is attempting to harness the power of Dust to blow a hole through the northern lights to reach the city on the other side.


The book isn’t absolutely perfect; some of the minor characters are kind of flat, especially in the beginning, and it the action bogs a little in the middle. Also: it ends with a nasty cliffhanger (it IS a trilogy, after all). But these are minor things. For the most part: I was completely stunned by these books. I couldn’t stand it when the series was over and wanted to go right back and start over again from book one. Have you left for the bookstore yet? Do I need to come to your house and thwap you?

I’ll post reviews of the other two books in the trilogy soon (they will be shorter and less gushy).