Tuesday, August 14, 2012

{Review} The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1) by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials # 1) by Philip Pullman
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1996 (originally published 1995)
Hardcover, 399 pages
ISBN 0679879242
Genres: adventure, children's fiction, fantasy, magic, science fiction, YA

Synopsis (via Goodreads): Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford's Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called "Gobblers"—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person's inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

My review: I'm aware of this book's immense popularity and status. I'm also aware that this book has been credited with changing many people's worldviews. Honestly, though? I was disappointed and not all that impressed. I suppose the first thing I noticed is how seriously Mr. Pullman apparently takes himself and his book. The writing style comes off as trying way too hard and it ruined some of the narrative; instead of allowing the language to flow, his diction feels artificial and forced. His philosophical arguments also leave much to be desired and didn't have a whole lot of coherence. The bit towards the end when Lord Asriel is trying to explain to Lyra what Dust is believed to be and what purpose it serves comes to mind. The argument is pretty flimsy anyway and then he gets to the verse in the Bible (Genesis 3:19) where God tells Adam "...dust you are, and unto dust you shall return". Supposedly this is partial proof as to why the cosmic Dust in the book is settling on adults and that the Dust is the physical manifestation of original sin. Anyway, it seemed so obviously taken out of context, so conveniently manipulated, that it felt as if Lord Asriel's entire argument fell apart. Don't think that I'm taking issue with the argument (and most of the The Golden Compass's philosophies) because I'm offended or can't acknowledge other worldviews or etc., etc. Honestly, they feel like a grab-bag of different views conveniently slotted together. In a way, this is how the whole book came across to me: contrived. I understand that in essence, that is what books are. But you don't want your reader knowing that! You want the characters and narrative to feel organic, and this book falls short. This brings up a more practical problem: how little character development occurs. At 11 years old Lyra's life is turned upside down and she has one harrowing experience after another. And yet she is essentially the exact same person on page 399 that she was on page 1. I was also extremely disappointed in Lord Asriel's character because at the beginning of the book it seemed as if he was going to play a pretty active and prominent part, but you only see a bit of him at the beginning and a bit at the end. The book also felt rather choppy because of the different characters suddenly appearing and disappearing. It felt as if it could be serially distributed: "This week, Lyra and the Golden Monkey! Next week, Lyra and the Gyptians!" It feels as if the great epic Mr. Pullman was striving for missed the mark and the magic, and I doubt this is one I'd ever recommend. I'm trying to decide whether to finish the series or not. I may, simply because it doesn't seem fair to judge an entire series by only the first volume, especially when I didn't give it a very positive rating/review.

Have you read The Golden Compass? What did you think? Also, I haven't seen the movie so for those of you who have, how does it compare to the book and is it worth watching?

Thank you so much for stopping by and I hope you have an awesome week!
Mary Beth


  1. Another good review! I have read the first book and saw the movie. Apart from the movie being interesting in an artistic way ( like I always like to look at the costume and scenes of movies sometimes as much as I love just watching the story) it really is just about as mediocre as the book.

    1. Why, thank you! Well, that's rather disappointing about the movie, though I can't say I'm terribly surprised. Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter and Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel just seems... odd. Nothing like I imagined them as I was reading the book. You just saved 113 minutes of my life, haha :)


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