The Golden Compass (also known as The Northern Lights) tells the tale of Lyra Belacqua, a character who by no means could be described as dull, meek, uninteresting or timid. She’s a young girl who lives in a facsimile of our own world. However, in this world, every human being has a daemon, a shape-shifting animal that is a part of you. When you hit a certain age, it stops changing and picks a single form.
A multifaceted story
From the beginning, Lyra becomes enmeshed in political intrigue. Unseen movements from a dozen sides are pulling her this way and that, yet throughout the mess, she remains independent and strong-willed, the sort of character that you cheer on despite her faults. She is often looked down on for her age and her uncouthness—which rankles her as much as it would any person, but she is also intelligent and a talented liar. At times, she drives the story forward by sheer dominance and slyness. The pacing that Lyra assists is also great, with several clearly defined parts to the story.
Other characters also help keep the story interesting—Mrs. Coulter, Iorek, Pantalaimon, Lee Scoresby, and a dozen more, each unique and complex in their motivations and pasts.
There is an air of mystery about the story and the driving elements that keep you guessing. Among them are the Alethiometer and the elusive ‘dust’. The world is rather pseudo-Victorian, taking a classical steampunk approach to worldbuilding. You have the recognizable blimps and rifles mixed with intelligent mercenary bears that forge their own armor. It’s strange but intoxicating and a lot of fun to read.
Daemons, not demons—difference noted
The facet of the daemons, who are a part of a person as deeply as anything could be, are one of the most intriguing aspects of The Golden Compass. As with many series, there is a variety in the fantastical element. In the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, fans could deliberate over what kind of allomancer they would be. In the Harry Potter books, people considered what house they would belong to and what their Patronus would be. While it is not as driving to the story, the form of one’s daemon after it stops changing is good for idle speculation, however short.
Warning, there be themes ahead!
The author Pullman once said, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” While these are not fully realized within The Golden Compass, they are pointed at and definitely set up for. With two more books in the trilogy, it gives Pullman time to fully flesh out the ideas.
However he also stated that “[His Dark Materials is] a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work of philosophy. I’m telling a story, I’m showing various characters whom I’ve invented saying things and doing things and acting out beliefs which they have, and not necessarily which I have. The tendency of the whole thing might be this or it might be that, but what I’m doing is telling a story, not preaching a sermon.”
The themes of the series have been called antireligious by many of faith, and praised widely by secularists. So if such things do offend you, or you wish to avoid such topics, this may not be the book for you.
Why should you read this book?
This book is energetic and fun. It is a children’s book, but that hardly detracts from the level of storytelling that Pullman displays in The Golden Compass. It is an interesting world with elements both new and old, great characters and an interesting plot.