Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, Book 1)

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, Book 1)

by Philip Pullman

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. Lately I’ve tried to get into the habit of lending books out a little more freely. I used to be somewhat insane about doling out my precious, precious books — if there was a book Lojack, I would have gladly used it. And if someone creased the cover, or God Forbid, ripped a page — that person was dead to me. (There may have been some spitting on the floor at the mention of that person’s name, Alexa. You know what you did.)

Recently I came to the realization that I had too many books. I know, it’s like saying I have too many shoes — up is down, black is white — but there you have it. And I realized that I didn’t have to keep every single thing I ever read even if I hated it. And I began to lend people books. I’d say, “No, take your time. Keep it, even.” Sometimes they would do just that. The fact that I can’t tell you who has what book is a breakthrough on the order of peace in the Middle East. (My next habit to break: hyperbole.)

My friend Nicole, however, did not run off with one of my sweet paper darlings (I do backslide.) I lent her Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and she returned it to my mailbox at work protected from the elements safely nestled in a ziplock bag (she is clearly a woman of substance and quality). (My next, next habit to break: overuse of parentheses.) The first thing I did was look at the first page. The next thing I knew I was three chapters in, and I had my next Back of the Stack selection. The timing is good too, if I do say so myself. The Golden Compass is the first of a trilogy called His Dark Materials, and the movie is being made as I write. (Note to Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig: don’t screw up!)

The Golden Compass is referred to as a young adult novel, with a young protagonist and a fantasy setting, but I found it so sophisticated, exciting and gorgeously written, it would be a shame for you to pass it by for that reason. Once you’ve raced through it, since the heroine is a 12-year old girl, I strongly encourage putting this book in the hands of your daughters. When I was a ‘young adult’ reader, I searched and searched for books with a young female lead and Lyra Belaqua is everything you could ask for in a literary companion — smart, brave, loyal and fierce (and an accomplished liar to boot). She’s an orphaned wild child living in the rambling and ancient Jordan College, the pet of the elderly scholars in a parallel version of 19th century England. When the local children start to disappear, Lyra embarks on an adventure in the far Arctic north, with the giant armored polar bear Iorek Byrnison by her side, aided by elegant flying witches and a band of brave gyptians (a sort of riff on gypsies) and pursued by the malicious and gorgeous Mrs. Coulter and her henchmen. Lyra’s quest: to save her friends from Mrs. Coulter’s mysterious and evil experiment, and maybe save the world.  Lyra’s world is much like our own, with some key differences, most notably the role of the Church, which has a hand in every aspect of life, particularly the sciences. There’s a great deal of theological discussion, but Lyra lets us know what she thinks is important and what we need to remember. The very, very best part about this book is the presence of daemons, which seem to represent the external soul of every man, woman and child. Each person has a daemon that never leaves their side. They (the daemons) may take the form of any animal at will, until puberty when they pick a beast that reflects their human’s personality and stay that way. (All the servants seem to have dog daemons, for instance.) Who wouldn’t want a mouse, or a cat, or a leopard that can talk to you and be your best pal? Where do I sign up?

This is the first book in the series, as I said. The second — The Subtle Knife — introduces a young male lead who is just as tough minded and admirable as Lyra, and takes us to a truly alien world just past the Northern Lights, where Lyra and her new friend confront new dangers and new adventures. And the third novel, The Amber Spyglass…sort of falls apart. Pullman clearly has an axe to grind in his portrayal of the Church, or at least the more dogmatic elements within the Church and he grinds it maybe a little too hard. Still I cannot recommend the first two novels strongly enough. You (and your children) will love Lyra for her brave, generous heart, and you’ll want to pack up your furs and anoraks and head North to visit the bears and witches, and cross the Northern Lights into the unknown.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.

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