Book Review: The Golden Compass

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The powers of this world are very strong. Men and women are moved by tides much fiercer than you can imagine, and they sweep us all up into the current.

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman

I wouldn’t say that high fantasy is one of my favourite genres, but I’ve always reserved a special spot for it in my heart. I have memories of countless summers spent poring over my favourite fantasy series until the books themselves fell apart and had to be Scotch taped together by my ever-patient mother. As a teenager, I made a tradition of rereading Harry Potter each summer, and like the rest of the world, I’ve more recently become obsessed with A Song of Ice and Fire, but the series that I’ve reread the most is The Chronicles of Narnia.

Narnia introduced me to basic elements of storytelling and familiarized me with various magical creatures out of Greek, Christian, and other mythologies. Once I passed puberty, I recognized all the not-so-subtle Christian overtones in Lewis’s prose. And as someone who grew up in a household disdainful of religious indoctrination, I found many things about my formerly beloved Narnia that troubled me.

There is, of course, the oft-cited character of Susan Pevensie, who doesn’t get to return to Narnia (ie., go to heaven) because she has become obsessed with boys and lipstick (ie., discovered sex). But one thing that has troubled me about the heroes of Narnia is that they are all good. Even characters like Edmund and Eustace, who initially struggle with sins like greed and envy, reform, and once they have reformed, they are nothing but good. There’s no relapse. This is fine, and fitting with C.S. Lewis’s Christian themes, but not very relatable.

I liked a lot of things about The Golden Compass, but what stood out the most for me was Lyra. Lyra is exactly what I want in a hero: morally centered, but also willing to lie and deceive to achieve her goals. She falters, struggles, and sometimes cries, as anyone her age would when faced with the situations she is forced to deal with. And for a child her age, Lyra is clever and adaptable enough that she carries the plot forward swiftly, all the while easily manipulating humans and other creatures in order to get closer to her goals.

I especially enjoyed the portrayal of gender in The Golden Compass. Lyra, while a tomboy, freely explores both stereotypically male and female interests. Despite roughhousing with the neighborhood boys during her days at Jordan College, she also initially enjoys a life of shopping and glamour with Mrs. Coulter. I thought Pullman cleverly expressed this duality in all people through the daemon. In this universe, all humans have a daemon, an animal that acts as the physical manifestation of their soul, that is of the opposite gender.

Daemons, armored bears, and witches. These are creatures and characters familiar to the fantasy genre (well, maybe not the armored bears so much), but what Pullman does with them in The Golden Compass is unique. The solemn tone of the whole book, with the subtle moments of humour, made it an engaging read for me.

YES OR NO?: YES. While researching this book, I read that Pullman eschews designating books for certain audiences, encouraging readers to pursue whichever books they’re interested in without regard for gender or age levels. Well, The Golden Compass is a book I would recommend to anyone, regardless of age or gender or even interest. Despite being fantasy, it easily appeals to anyone interested in human rights, religion, sociology, and the language is somehow sophisticated enough to not bore adults, but not complex enough to confuse children. I highly recommend this book, and I can’t wait to get through the rest of the series.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Golden Compass

  1. I enjoyed reading your review. I haven’t yet read The Golden Compass. I attempted it in the past but, coming from a strong Christian background, I found it hard to get past the use of the term “daemon” in the story and that they are pets. That might seem silly to some but it was very conflicting for me at the time because I struggled to substitute other words for it as I read but I recently bought the book and plan to read it next year. I liked the movie, though fans of the book say it’s horrible.
    I decided to get the book to read the story after hearing lots of praises for it in Youtube videos and especially after listening to BBC Radio Bookclub’s podcast with Pullman where kids asked him questions on the book. I like what he had to say about daemons. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00d3wdb
    I also read an article that said Pullman based*(or was inspired by) Paradise Lost, which is another book I’d like to read. He also mentions that in the podcast.

    1. It’s really interesting hearing about your perspective on the book, since I grew up in a mainly non-religious environment. I find the series challenges the genre, in terms of what’s usually expected of women, children, and even religion, specifically in contradiction to the Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve also heard that the audioplay (available on YouTube) of the book is riveting, so maybe you’d want to check that out as well.

      1. Hmm, I’ll look that up. I wonder if I’ll notice those when I read it. I don’t count the first time I picked it up as reading since my ha ups with daemon got in the way.

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