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The Golden Compass

by Philip Pullman

hardcover edition

The Golden Compass (published in Britain as Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman has been marketed to young adults, so it's easily overlooked by those of us who tend to wallow in the SF section of bookstores. However, it's a tremendously inventive, engaging fantasy, reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci novels, but more somber. It's well worth a wander to foreign aisles.

Twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon have grown up (well, nearly) in Jordan College at Oxford, in an alternate world where the Church has retained tight control over the government and science. The technology in general use, such as naptha lamps and zeppelins, is old fashioned, but the story also refers to atomic craft and "coal-silk," which I assume is nylon or polyester. (The natural sciences are considered a branch of theology; I particularly liked the Holy Semiconductor.) This world also has monsters and magic, though, and it's hard to tell where the dividing line between magic and "theology" is. The golden compass of the title is an intricate truth-telling device that guides Lyra on a journey to the far frozen North, in search of answers about disappearing children and a mysterious theological phenomenon called Dust.

The story is gripping, but I was more enchanted by the world that Pullman depicts, particularly by the daemons. Every human being is linked to a daemon that must stay within a few feet of its person. Children's daemons shapeshift, but they settle on a single animal form during puberty. Telepathic animal companions have been done to death and beyond, but the daemons are strange and fascinating and utterly integral to Lyra's society.

Pullman performs a number of other improbable feats. His Child Of Destiny motif isn't cloying. His villains, amoral people who are doing Horrible Things to children (did I mention that you might not want to read this to little kids?), are occasionally sympathetic; and the characterization is on the whole complex and believable. Most astonishingly, Pullman has created talking polar bears that are miles away from cuddly.

Trilogy-haters should be warned that an author's note at the front states that this is the first book of a trilogy called "His Dark Materials." The second novel will be set in our universe, and the third will move between the universes. The end of The Golden Compass doesn't exactly leave the reader hanging, but the story is certainly not complete. I'm greatly looking forward to the sequel, The Subtle Knife.

It's been a long time since I read a fantasy that sucked me in as thoroughly as this one did. I recommend The Golden Compass very highly, particularly to fans of Diana Wynne Jones and Diane Duane.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
May 1997

hardcover edition
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Date: April 1996
ISBN: 0-679-87924-2
Binding: hardcover
Pages: 352
Price: US $20.00, Canada $26.00

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Sep 2001 / CMS