Saturday, September 6, 2014

Weekly Book Review: The Golden Compass

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Released: July 1995
Genre: Fantasy / Science Fiction / Steampunk


Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford's Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called "Gobblers"—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person's inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

[From Goodreads]


I have no trouble declaring The Golden Compass of a higher order than most fantasy novels. Be aware: this is coming from someone who, from the age of 8 to around the age of 24, read nothing but fantasy novels and assigned texts. Many fantasy novels ignite the imagination, but few ignite the brain, at least not as skillfully as Pullman's magnum opus. The Golden Compass has the guts to confront both philosophy and religion in ways that are sure to offend or alienate certain readers.

Lyra Belacqua/Lyra Silvertongue, our not-so-humble protagonist, may be neither physically powerful nor particularly booksmart, but she has street smarts in abundance. Lyra is a capable heroine who rescues herself as often as she is rescued, and often her rescuers are led to defend her through her own machinations. Her problems are solved through quick wits, skillful lies, and the help of the alethiometer, a compass that can answer any question, provided one can read its spinning hands and many-meaninged symbols. Lyra can be spiteful, arrogant, and, in her own words, lacking in imagination, but that is, in my opinion, all the more endearing. Too often female leads in both the fantasy and YA genres are "perfect" aside from a few shallow flaws (clumsiness is one of the most common). Lyra's virtues and vices make her more vivid and more human than her superficial peers.

Almost all of the major characters are memorable. The cast includes an exiled armored bear, a Texan balloonist, the matriarch of a witch clan, one of the greatest villainesses ever put to page, and a herd of soulbeasts who range from cuddly (Pantalaimon) to terrifying (the golden monkey). That it manages such a diverse cast without feeling bloated is testament to its quality.

The Golden Compass' mythology is inventive and almost wholly original. Lyra's alternate world is populated by such creatures as shapeshifting animals who serve as physical representations of the soul, intelligent bears with a penchant for blacksmithing, and matriarchal, immortal witches. Despite the outlandish nature of some of its concepts, The Golden Compass straddles the line between oddity and realism fairly well through abundant detail and a supply of world-building anecdotes.

Recommended for anyone who can deal with a little religious criticism. Those who can't, steer well clear.

You should also read:

The Amulet of Samarkand

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