I started The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman on a Sunday night and finished it on a Wednesday night, and if I hadn’t had to work Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I would have finished it much sooner. I could hardly put it down after starting it; I took some rather long lunch breaks and spent the entire Monday evening reading.
The plot is gripping; I was eager through-out to know what was going to happen next. It follows a girl named Lyra in a fantasy world similar to our own, who was brought up in the care of the scholars of Jordan College at Oxford University, and who travels to the arctic to rescue her friend Roger and her uncle, Lord Asriel, getting drawn in to a political and religious conflict involving her uncle, a powerful woman named Mrs. Coulter, disappearing children, and a mysterious particle called Dust. I do not want to say more about the plot because one of the things I particularly enjoyed about the book was the way in which things were revealed to the reader in bits and pieces. As the story progresses you do not know much more than Lyra herself. The world Pullman created has a unique blend of fantastical elements; one that was particularly endearing and played an important role in the plot was the idea of daemons: each human is accompanied through life by a creature with whom they have a special bond. Another unique item was the alethiometer (the golden compass of the title), which required developing special skills to read but which was very powerful once Lyra could do so, giving truthful answers to any question she asked it. I liked the way in which she had to calm her mind and let it “settle” in order to use it.
There are a few elements that bothered me, but they were trivial. There was a strange mix of old and modern devices, such as horse-drawn carriages and gas-powered zeppelins, and for some reason Pullman made up names for different kinds of lights/power. I guess this was so we wouldn’t think of them as parallel with the items in this world, but I found it kind of odd. The crux of the plot involves pseudo-scientific elements, but I was mostly able to accept them as simply part of the fantasy since there was not too much reference to the real science of this world.
Another thing I liked about The Golden Compass was that it did not start off (or even end, really) with a clearcut good/evil division. As the plot develops some people and actions do seem clearly evil, but others remain ambiguous. The conflict is more multi-faceted than a simple line between good and evil.
It is the first of three books, and I felt that the ending almost did not resolve things satisfactorily enough. It was clear that there is a sequel and it left me wanting to know, yet again, what was going to happen next. However, it was also a clear point at which to split things between a first and second book.
I highly recommend The Golden Compass and I am looking forward to the sequels!