Wednesday, November 14, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass
Phillip Pullman
Knopf, 2002
399 pages

As I said in this post, The Golden Compass is just the sort of book a young James would have been interested in therefore on one of my recent forays to the Alabama Bookstop I decided to pick it up and see if I could get through it before the movie came out. As it turns out I might be able to read all three of the books before the movie comes out as I picked this book up last Friday and completed it last night. I found the book to be very readable and, unlike Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (which I have yet to complete), the somewhat formal language Pullman uses at times to enhance the reading experience rather than distract from it. I think it is already evident that I very much enjoyed reading this book.

The Golden Compass, which is the first book in the his Dark Materials trilogy, chronicles the adventures of Lyra, an 11 or 12 year-old orphan who begins the tale as a ward of the Scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. The book opens with Lord Asriel, Lyra's uncle, visiting Jordan College where he is a fellow, to discuss some of his discoveries while in the north, which is a collection of savage lands populated by witch clans and the panserbjorne, or the armored bears. After Lord Asriel's visit, Lyra's life returns to normal until one day her best friend Roger is taken by a mysterious group known only as the Gobblers. The only thing anyone knows for certain about the Gobblers is that they take kidnap children who are never heard from again. The same day that Roger is taken the glamorous Mrs. Coulter arrives in Oxford with an offer for Lyra. Mrs. Coulter needs an assistant and she would like it very much if Lyra would come to London and fill that role for her. Thus begins Lyra's wild adventures through the confines of British aristocracy to London's streets and the wide world beyond.

Being the sort of geek that I am there are parts of me that find Pullman's world even more interesting than the characters he has created. It is a world not unlike our own however in Pullman's world magic is real and every human is accompanied by a daemon. Daemon's are physical manifestations of the human's soul and while inexorably linked to their human, they are individuals in their own right. Children's daemons' can shift their forms however around the time the human hits puberty the daemon settles on a final form. One other major difference is that in Pullman's world England is dominated by the Magisterium. In this first book the Magisterium is not discussed very much, however it is clear that it is the Christian Church and is not a power to be trifled with. Other differences include the previously mentioned witches and panserbjorne. The panserbjorne are bears who are self-aware and often sell their services as mercenaries.

While I have heard that there was a hue and cry from some Christian groups that this book is anti-religious, and I can see how they are pigeon-holing the book to appear that way, I do not believe this is the truth. Rather than serve as a condemnation of Christianity or Christian ideals, any anti-religious sentiments expressed in this book are anti-establishment sentiments. The only thing I found in the book that bothered me is that there are times where the characters do not get the happy endings you wish they would. While I completely understand why this happens, it might be a little rough for some younger readers to handle as I found myself tearing up more than once while I was reading.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it to anyone!

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