Book Review: The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman
Would I have liked Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass as a child? Probably. I certainly did as an adult.
This young-adult, modern fantasy—the first in Pullman’s His Dark Materials series—stars a scrappy girl named Lyra who grew up as an orphan looked after by the staff of a fictional college in Oxford, England. But when her friend Roger is kidnapped by a mysterious group known as the Gobblers, she sets out to save him, a journey that takes her to the Arctic and beyond.
It’s a fun tale, and Lyra’s spunk makes her a charming protagonist. But the part of the story that really shone for me was the worldbuilding.
The Golden Compass is set in an alternate version of late-20th century Earth. The geography and peoples are comparable, but the technology is more anachronistic (nothing’s digital, and steam is still heavily used), a global theocracy controls the politics, and fantasy elements abound, especially in the far North: armorsmithing polar bears, rival clans of witches, a supernatural substance called Dust, and—most compellingly—daemons.
These aren’t your traditional devils, though. Every human has one, a physical manifestation of their soul that takes animal form. A child’s daemon can toggle between creatures (mice, crows, monkeys, etc.) at will, but an adult’s daemon settles on a single aspect and sticks with it for the rest of their—and their human’s—life. Daemons also reflect their human’s mood, betraying anxiety and anger to the observant. And most humans can’t be far from their daemon without suffering debilitating pain.
I enjoyed how Pullman gradually revealed these and other rules. There’s no heavy-handed information dump about how they work; the majority of the mechanics are mentioned only when they’re relevant, and often demonstrated rather than told. I also admired how The Golden Compass took its most-interesting invention from cute character detail to fundamental plot driver.
The ending isn’t wholly satisfying on its own, serving more as a lead-in to Book Two than a wrap-up of Book One. But I’d still highly recommend The Golden Compass—no matter what age you are.
P.S. I listened to the audiobook, which is fully cast and masterfully done. I have dim memories of the movie adaptation being subpar, but hopefully the forthcoming HBO adaptation will do the story justice.
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