THE GOLDEN COMPASS, Philip Pullman, 399pages, $ Varies at Amazon
Lyra’s Oxford is a little different than the one most of us might travel to: For one thing, people in her world don’t have spirits the way we do. They have daemons, animals that stay by their sides. There’s also a kingdom of armored bears living in ice castles, and Tartars who are rumored to eat children. And it all seems so perfectly real.
In Lyra’s Oxford, she has the ideal life: She climbs the roofs of ancient Jordan College and explores its catacombs with her daemon Pantalaimon and her best friend Roger, a kitchen boy. Her schooling comes only when the masters of the all male school have a little time to spare, so there’s plenty of time to have clay ball fights against the brick burner’s children and the townies, and to steal barges from the river people known as Gyptians when she fancies a trip to another town. Lyra doesn’t have a single care.
But everything is about to change for her. Her uncle, Lord Asriel has returned from
an exploration in the north, with pictures to show the masters of the school. Breaking the rules as usual, Lyra hides in an armoire and sees photographs of a city in another dimension, floating in the lights of the Aurora Borealis. As if that weren’t shocking enough, Lyra is horrified when another photo shows a child whose daemon has been cut away from him.
Children are starting to disappear from all the towns, being stolen by people who the villagers call Gobblers. To the privileged Lyra, it’s all just a game of “kids and Gobblers” until a young Gyptian boy named Billy and then her best friend Roger disappear. Lyra becomes angry when the adults of Jordan College do nothing to help. But its just like adults to be preoccupied with useless things.
Despite her pleas for help, the masters of the college are thinking about their young charge’s future. Her uncle has disappeared, and the masters have determined that Lyra needs to have a more systematic education and a woman’s influence. Lyra is high born after all and can’t be left to the unstructured life she’s been leading.
Enter the beautiful Mrs. Coulter, who fascinates Lyra with her independence and elegant manners and agrees to take on Lyra’s education and upbringing. Early one morning before Lyra is to leave Jordan College, the master gives her a strange artifact that had belonged to her uncle. It is an alethiometer, a golden compass that points the reader toward the truth of everything. He warns her to hide it from Mrs. Coulter and never let the golden compass out of her sight. Does Lyra detect misgivings about Mrs. Coulter in the old master’s words to her?
For awhile, Lyra loves her new life. Everything about Mrs Coulter is beautiful: her clothes; her house and the wonderful shopping trips. But when Mrs. Coulter throws a cocktail party, Lyra learns a dark secret about her new guardian and Lyra’s own part to play in a dark plot. She escapes to the streets of London, unprepared for the dangers before her.
Danger does strike, but she’s rescued by the colorful Gyptians who are sailing north to find their lost children. They become awestruck with Lyra’s unfolding gift for reading the alethiometer when she accurately predicts the death of a Gyptian spy. They include her on the dangerous journey to the desolate north.
Turkish slave hunters, Tartars who are rumored to eat children, witches who have vowed to protect Lyra, as well as an armored bear down on his luck in a tavern, and parallel universes, all figure into this harrowing tale.
This is the first book of Philip Pullman’s Dark Matter Series, and one that has become a foundation block in the young adult genre. It is suspenseful and often harrowing, with twists in a plot that keeps the reader turning the pages. This reader however often found himself wishing that the emotional lives of Mr. Pullman’s characters had been given the sensitive attention displayed in other well written aspects of his book. Never the less, he has created parallel universes to our own, mixing the similarities and the differences between them with a cleverness that plays with the reader and keeps us entertained.
This is exceptional story telling and wonderful writing. If you love fantasy as much as we do, you’ll love this one. We have no doubt The Golden Compass will convince you to read the next two books, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It’s a gas of a good read! 4.5 Stars out of 5.