The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass  - Philip Pullman If I had to describe The Golden Compass with just one word, that word would be original. That's the word that kept popping into my head as I was reading this book. How refreshing it is to read a children's/YA fantasy-fiction with nothing obviously borrowed or imitated from another story. I read somewhere that author Philip Pullman said that 'His Dark Materials' series was a sort of 'anti-Narnia', and I think that's part of why I held off reading this book for so long. I worried that they would be too similar to one another. I wasn't ready straight away to step into something Narnia-esque. (Those who follow my reviews know that while Narnia started out good for me, it ended in a pretty big let-down.) Couple that with how absolutely mediocre the movie version of The Golden Compass was and you'll have an pretty good idea why I was worried. Now that I've read Book 1 - The Golden Compass, I see what Pullman meant, and I'm pleasantly surprised with how utterly imaginative, completely unique and decidedly enticing this first of three books has turned out to be.

Right from the word go, The Golden Compass sets a darker tone that most fantasy stories with a child protagonist. For the first fifty pages or so, I struggled a bit with the story because I felt more explanations were needed. This world is very similar in some ways to our world, but also very different and I felt the world-building was lacking initially. New words weren't explained or defined as they were being presented and certain realities of this world (like daemons) were just given without any reference to this being out of the norm for the reader. I just felt a bit lost since I'm the type of person who wants to understand everything most of the mechanics of a world right away. After the first fifty pages though, things seemed to fall into place more readily, and characters would come back and clarify what was brought up initially and everything started falling into place. What you begin to discover after that is that this world is richly imagined and beautifully described. Pullman really knows how to pain pictures with words. His writing style, his use of similes and metaphors are poetic and instantly bring vivid imaginings to mind of what he's describing.

The protagonist Lyra is probably one of the most original characters I have ever had the joy of reading about. She's like no other character I can think of. In the beginning, while she's still at Jordan College she's so rugged and ruthless for a child her age, especially considering she's a girl; that it's hard to get a read on her. As the story progresses her courage and daring become more apparent, as does her willingness to help her friends. But what sets her apart within tent-pole characteristics is her innate way of bringing things about. She's cunning and ruthless and a skilled liar. Finally it clicked: she's like a cross between a Slytherin and Gryffindor (excuse the Harry Potter reference lol), she has traits that could be considered negative (and indeed she bristles at one point when a character points it out) but she uses them for positive or heroic ends, so it works! I really liked that she wasn't the typical cookie-cutter hero, especially being that she's a girl; it was a refreshing change from the usual and it made Lyra all the more likable.

Then, to further add to the rich originality of this story we have daemons. Daemons are like our equivalent of a soul; or a part of one's soul. Every human in this world has a daemon and both are inseparable for the duration of the human's life. Lyra's daemon Pantalaimon, knows and shares her thoughts and feelings; they are one but in two separate bodies. Daemons are animals, and when the human is a child, the daemon can change forms at will. Eventually when a child reaches adolescence, the daemon will settle into one chosen form that is usually representative of the person's inner most nature. The bond between a human and their daemon is stronger than anything else. The idea of daemons was probably one of my favorite imaginative ideas in this book. I found myself wishing I had a daemon and wondering what mine would have settled into by now! :) ...but as anyone who's read this book knows, having the equivalent of one's soul outside of one's body can lead to some pretty horrifying turn of events. [spoilers removed]

And if all this wasn't enough to win a reader over, add an absolutely charming and lovable cast of supporting characters. So many varied, colorful and endearing allies : John Fa, Farder Coram and all the gyptians, Lee, Roger, Billy, Ma Costa, Serefina and the rest of her witches and of course my personal favorite Iorek Byrnison an outcast armored polar bear. They were all so easily lovable...and so real. Not to be outdone, the bad guys definitely have some memorable characters as well; only they are quite as loveable. Only if you sort them in the 'love to hate' category. And again these villains don't fit into the usual 'villain' mold. Expect quite a few surprises along the way. And not just where the villains are concerned. 'The' actual Golden Compass is an imaginative and surprising magical tool in and of itself. [spoilers removed]

Being that this is the first book in a trilogy, I look forward to delving deeper into the imaginings a Philip Pullman for book two and three. I haven't been impressed by a fantasy fiction book in quite some time...most of my reviews have been falling into the 2-3 star category lately. So I'm very pleased with 'The Golden Compass'. I can't believe I waited so long to read this, and I can't wait to get started on 'The Subtle Knife'.