by Philip Pullman




The Golden Compass
Cover by Eric Rohmann

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

One of the problems with setting a novel in a world similar to our own with subtle differences is letting the reader learn what they need to know without seeming to be contrived.  Philip Pullman handles the situation exquisitely in The Golden Compass, the first book of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy.  Pullman's protagonist is Lyra Belacqua, a young girl who is being raised in Jordan College in Oxford.  Despite the nature of her home, Lyra lives a very secluded life with little knowledge or concern for the world outside of Oxford.  In educating Lyra, Pullman also educates the reader.

Some of the changes in Lyra's world are obvious from the outset.  Everyone who lives in this world is accompanied by a dæmon, a shape-changing familiar who acts as an advisor, confidant and friend to their master.  England also has a large number of itinerant river-dwellers known as gyptians who are often the target of Lyra and her friend's practical jokes.

The appearance at the college of Lyra's Uncle Asrael and his story of mysterious events in Lapland set the novel in motion and give Pullman the opportunity to not only introduce more differences in his world, but also begin to introduce the philosophical questions he seems to be more interested in.

The Church is more prevalent in Lyra's world than in our own, however it is a completely different entity than the Roman Catholic Church.  The Magisterium, or governing agency of the Church, is located in Geneva rather than Rome.  The presence of dæmons is seen as the equivalent of souls in many ways, providing the Church with more leverage.  Lord Asrael and others are intent on discovering how a newly discovered particle, known as Dust, fits into their system of beliefs.  Meanwhile, the mysterious Mrs. Coulter, who may be involved with a strange set of kidnappers known as gobblers, is more interested in the question of original sin.

Pullman presents much of his background throughout the course of the novel, although provides few answers.  In a brief note at the beginning of The Golden Compass, he notes that it is the first book in a series.  The second book, The Subtle Knife will pick up at the end of The Golden Compass and be set entirely in our own world.  This will give him more of a chance to examine the differences between the worlds and their philosophies before tying everything together in The Amber Spyglass, the final book of the sequence.

The Golden Compass presents a harsh world.  Lyra meets few sympathetic adults throughout her adventures and has to try to figure out who to trust and who not to, often making nearly fatal mistakes.  There is little humor to lighten the mood, yet Pullman never descends into the maudlin.  Instead he guides his reader through Lyra's world and adventures with the promise that when everything is revealed he will have made a statement about the way the world works.

Purchase this book in hardcover from Amazon Books.
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