The Golden Compass (In the UK, published as Northern Lights)
by Philip Pullman
Book 1 of the His Dark Materials trilogy
Paperback: 399 pages
Publisher: Yearling; May 22, 2001
Although Philip Pullman has primarily been an author of children's books, his Dark Materials trilogy is a work worthy of going toe-to-toe with adult literature heavyweights. Based on John Milton's Paradise Lost, it re-interprets the myth of Adam and Eve and their subsequent banishment from the Garden of Eden because of Original Sin. Casting two young children on the cusp of maturity in the primary roles, Pullman manages to weave a complex and compelling narrative dealing with such universal and adult themes as the nature of evil and what it means to grow up, forsaking childhood innocence for adulthood and all it brings, both the bitter and the sweet.
In this first book, readers are introduced to Lyra, a girl being raised by the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford. It quickly becomes apparent that this world, while very much like ours, is drastically different in many fundamental ways. Each person has a daemon, a companion familiar that appears at the instant of his or her birth and is a true and loyal friend until that person's death, at which time the daemon similarly expires. A child's daemon can shapechange into almost any animal, usually taking on a form that reflects the current mood of the child. When a child grows up, her daemon settles into a permanent shape and no longer changes. This form is usually indicative of the adult's basic nature. Most household servants have dog-shaped daemons for example.
Lyra is irrepressibly naughty and an accomplished liar but also fearless and loyal, qualities which are soon to be tested when her best friend Roger is abducted. He is not the only one. Children all over England are vanishing. The quest to save Roger will take Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, across Europe, all the way to the far north where the adventurer, Lord Asriel, has gone to investigate what looks like a gash in the sky, revealing a gleaming city of shining towers and mysterious particles called "Dust" which seem to possess their own secret intelligence.
On the way, Lyra will learn of the terrible fate awaiting the missing children and their daemons as well as their connection to the enigmatic Dust. She will also fall afoul of the Church, which has grown into a mighty political institution, melding secular and spiritual into an authority that controls most of Europe. The Church has its own plans for the Dust.
Lyra will find not only enemies but friends as well. Among them, Mrs Coulter, a woman planning her own arctic expedition and with her own reasons for seeking out Lord Asriel. Lyra will have the help of Iorek Byrnison, a polar bear from the northern kingdom of bears, Svalbard, who becomes invincible once he dons the armour of his own crafting. The cast of wonderfully imaginative and lively characters also includes an American balloonist, a race of nomadic river people named gyptians and clans of northen witches who fly through the skies on branches of cloud pine. To help her find her way, Lyra has the alethiometer, the titular golden compass. This enigmatic instrument, somehow also dependent on the Dust, has the power to answer any question but there are only a few people in the world, of which Lyra is one, who can interpret its answers.
When at last, Lyra comes face-to-face with Lord Asriel, she learns that her journey is only just beginning. A great war is about to begin and though Lyra is unaware of the pivotal role she is to play in the future of mankind, there are other forces at work who have no qualms about bending her to their own ends, to reshape human destiny in their desired image.
Why You Should Read It
Pullman writes in a very clean, easy-to-understand style, which helps communicate his very grown-up ideas to a young readership. While you will find this book and the rest of His Dark Materials in the children's section of major bookstores, it is a pretty adult tale. Characters die and there is even a vague reference to genital mutilation in the trilogy's third book, The Amber Spyglass. Pullman also discusses religion and presents a very negative view of Christianity in this trilogy, warning of the dangers of blind faith and obeying authority without question. It is certainly not for the very young. At the same time, it is refreshing to see a writer who treats children as rational, thinking beings capable of dealing with serious concepts.
This is also a gripping story. Lyra is a vibrant, interesting heroine. At heart, she's a coarse street urchin trying to figure out her place in the world. She realises that at times, adults really do not know best and may in fact be the enemy. She has to rely on her own wits and occasionally, her knack for lying if she wants to survive. She will always have Pantalaimon though, to act has her conscience, to advise her and keep her out of trouble. Pullman manages to create a world that is so close to our mundane one yet so fantastical that I never for a moment doubted the existence of a land peopled with intelligent armour-wearing bears. I'm more than sick and tired of people who rave about Harry Potter, about how it can be appreciated on so many levels by old and young alike and how it is the be-all and end-all of young people's fiction. Many of them have not even bothered to investigate the aisles of the children's section for themselves. If they had, they would certainly have discovered a wealth of well-written books for young folk and old folk alike, this one among them.