The Golden Compass is a peculiar mix of elements. Review by Violet Kane

Book Cover

In Print
The first book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass is an ambitious mix of elements, which is not wholly successful.

Pullman's trilogy has already found a good many fans, but I find it difficult to pinpoint an audience for this book, unless we want to file it under "children's books for adults". The book centers on the mischievous young Lyra, who has been raised by various caretakers at Jordan College in Oxford. She lives in a world that can only be described as an alternate history fantasy world. It's the twentieth century, but the Catholic Church is still an overarching power in Europe and, from England to Moscow, the threat of Tatar invasion looms. When children start disappearing in Oxford, Lyra finds herself taken away on a journey north with the mysterious Mrs. Coulter, only to find that she's in charge of the kidnapping effort. Lyra and her demon—a creature who is spiritually connected to her—manage to escape to find themselves on a dangerous journey into the north, where she meets talking bears, discovers her own abilities to read portents, and finally finds out precisely what the kidnappers are doing to the children they take.

Book Cover

On Audio
The first ill-matched set of elements in this story, for me, was in the setting. This book has a highly complex setting that is both very like our world and very unlike—but the similarities and differences are only hinted at, drawn out here and there. With such a simultaneously real and unreal setting, I found myself torn between assuming details of the reality I know, and suspending disbelief for a fantasy world. The other mismatch I felt in this story was one of style and story vs. audience. This book is marketed as young adult. How young? I could not say. In my own experience (as a young adult myself nary fifteen years ago), by the age of 13 to 16, fantasy fans are already reading Tolkien and being exposed in school to basic adult literature with adult or teenaged characters. Lyra is pre-pubescent and the style of writing is a firmly 5th or 6th grade level. However, this book contains subtle and morally complex themes (which I would welcome in an adult book) that seem to clash with the apparent intended audience (I base this guess upon Lyra's age and the writing style) of 8 to 11. Her father has unapologetically abandoned her to the care of his college mates, while he poses as an uncle, her mother is a theological extremist who performs experiments on children that sometimes result in their deaths, university folks expound semi-superstitious philosophical and theological theories, and Lyra herself arranges for two talking bears—highly humanized by the story—to engage in single combat where one of these is killed. Any one or all of these elements I would expect in a fantasy story geared toward middle teens, but Lyra seems much too young to be weathering these moral ambiguities with the ease that she does. Moreover, I doubt most parents of children in the 8-11 year old bracket will want to introduce these themes to their children's reading lists.

The Golden Compass has its interesting moments, and its mix of not-usually-combined elements is intriguing. But these elements create a peculiar tension, especially in terms of audience age range. If you are thinking of reading this to your child or assigning it to your class, I would recommend you read it first, yourself, to determine its appropriateness for the specific age level you're reading to.
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Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.