Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman, Alfred A Knopf, 1996, 399 pp

I have been wanting to read Philip Pullman for a long time. For some reason, his books would call to me from the shelves at work, but it wasn't until the movie for The Golden Compass came out that I seriously put this book on my TBR list. I didn't make it to the theatre to see the movie, so last week the DVD arrived from Netflix and I (almost) always read the book first.

Within thirty pages I was enthralled and grew more amazed after each chapter. This is NOT Narnia. I am not even sure it is a children's book or even YA. Yes, Lyra is only eleven and the story is told from her viewpoint though not in first person, but there are some meaty concepts being put forth here. In fact, omniscient third person in a mostly eleven-year-old voice is a pretty good trick: that young energy propels the plot, the actions, even the emotions, but Pullman gets to put his views in there as well.

His views are fairly unique to him. I have not read a huge amount of fantasy beyond C S Lewis, Tolkein, Anne McCaffrey and Neil Gaiman, but I can recognize a fantasy writer with a well thought out world view. It was clear to me that the uproar from the religious right when the movie came out was not so much because Pullman is an atheist (and is he really?) but because he is strongly against organized religion. I have no problem with that.

What he is in favor of is knowledge, wisdom, freedom of thought. Those are my passions as well, so I am now a Pullman fan.

The writing is wonderful with lots of action. The story moves at a great pace. As far as characters go, I thought the main children and a few sympathetic adults, such as King of the Gyptians John Faa, and Farder Coran, their spiritual leader, were the most fully developed, as naturally were their daemons. The bears, good and evil, were also deep characters. But most of the adults, including Asriel and Mrs Coulter, seemed like types, which was perfect because again, it gave the reader Lyra's perspective. She could understand John Faa, Farder Coram, Iorek Byrnison and even his rival bear, Iofur Raknison, while Asriel and Mrs Coulter were somewhat incomprehensible and dangerous to her. Isn't that just the way it is for children?

For me, everything about this book was a wonder. I love the parallel universes, the mystery of Dust, the nefarious use of children ("for their own good", of course) and Lyra's deep sense of loyalty and fair play. The conceit of the daemons as human souls is brilliant. How can any reader not be dying to read Book 2, The Subtle Knife, after such a cliff hanger of an ending.

(All of the books of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy are available in paperback versions of the single volumes, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. We also have the omnibus volume of His Dark Materials in paperback.)


  1. I saw the movie and really liked it. It's a pity it wasn't a great commercial sucess and the trilogy wasn't filmed in its entirety.
    I haven't read the books, but judging from the topic of the movie, you're right, it's sort of dark for children or tweens, but then there's Harry Potter...

  2. If you liked the movie that much you will LOVE the book and the entire trilogy. I don't personally know any children or tweens that have read the books. Do you?