This book review is *spoiler free*!
Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is one of those books that you read once, realize it’s pretty great, and then read again only to find out it’s knock-your-socks-off perfect. I have only read this book once before, and the second reading definitely rendered me speechless with Pullman’s genius. If you haven’t guessed already, I highly recommend this book.
The thing about The Golden Compass is that it’s mainly considered “crossover fiction” by those who classify books. It contains elements of children’s literature – cute animals and polar bears – but then again deals with very adult themes – souls and their importance as well as major war including armored bear warriors. I’ll bet you’ve noticed I paralleled those two sets of ideas on purpose. The idea of it as crossover fiction can also be seen in the different covers The Golden Compass is given: one displays a cute-looking polar bear and a girl, the other displays a gold cover with a compass. Obviously there are more covers, but they generally keep either of these themes.
As a middle school student, I didn’t pick up on half of the serious themes of this novel. I vaguely remember falling in love with it because of the idea of animal companions (called daemons in the novel) and the sense of adventure that was woven throughout the plot, but this time I enjoyed it for a totally different reason. Sure, animal companions are a fun idea, but the fact that they are actually the souls of the people they are linked to is something that has more weight in the novel than you’d originally imagine. Once you realize the gravity of the role of these daemons, the book takes on a whole new significance. Atheism aside, of course.
Sure, Pullman is an atheist and pretty much puts down the institution of the Church in every chapter if not every page, but his atheism doesn’t take away from the novel like you think it would. And sure, the Church made a big to-do about the novel’s atheism and attacks on Christianity especially when the movie came out in 2007, but don’t let that stop you from indulging in this masterpiece. Pullman sure knows how to string together beautiful prose while still moving you forward in the story and half the time you’re too distracted by it to care that he just insulted the Church on an allegorical level. Nothing about the novel is disjointed and everything pretty much makes sense, armored bears included. Though, keep in mind that obviously this book is fantasy first-and-foremost so suspension of disbelief is required. Lyra does some pretty crazy things, so I find its best not to look into their purpose or meaning too much.
Though, that being said, if you do choose to delve into the purposes and meanings of anything Lyra does, you’ll find that Pullman has an answer for almost everything within the book. I won’t go into specifics, but you’ll see what I mean if you crack open the book and wonder why Lyra can read the compass so easily and no one else can. Trust me, you’ll find out in 200 pages or so.
Another thing Pullman is extremely good at is characterization. Lyra Belacqua is one of the most reckless and slightly-unlikeable protagonists I have ever read, but yet I came to love her as I delved deeper into the novel. Her sense of adventure and childlike wonder is so strong that it almost pours out of the page. Of course this could also be due to Pullman’s perfect prose, but the statement still holds. Lyra and her daemon Pan become the most-liked characters by the end of the novel, though you could make a case for others like Iorek Byrnison or the gyptians.
Pullman is also quite the expert at world building, though admittedly places like Bolvangar and Svalbard aren’t as descriptive as you’d see with a place like, say, Hogwarts. You’ll notice that their lack of extensive description is part of what describes them, however. You’ll see what I mean. As you enter the world of Lyra’s Oxford, you’ll notice it’s a lot like our perception of Oxford. Lots of colleges, tons of scholars, typical England. London seems generally the same as well, complete with the embankment and high society. However, then places like Bolvangar and Svalbard appear in conversation that are both real and unreal places at once. Pullman really toys with the idea of what is and is not real with not only his locations, but also with the different items and concepts in the novel. One example I can think of off the top of my head is when some characters discuss elementary particles like “electrons, photons, and neutrinos”. The names are close to the originals, but slightly off. That’s a theme to keep in mind for the entire novel.
I can continue into eternity with my love for The Golden Compass, but I might as well stop myself here. I can also talk about how many feels I obtain from reading parts concerning humans and their daemons, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself, should you choose to read it (and you should, obviously). My point is, I highly recommend this novel and the other two in the His Dark Materials Trilogy: The Subtle Knife & The Amber Spyglass. As I get around to reading the other two the second time around, maybe I’ll have more comments to add. But I can almost guarantee they won’t be spoiler-free. With these things in mind, The Golden Compass is a great example of what good crossover fiction looks like. Plus, Pullman is a fantastic author to boot. I’ll add him to my ever-growing list of influential authors.