Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rereading The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

"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 with their daemons, creatures that reflect each person's inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved." (Summary altered slightly because for some reason it contained a rather major spoiler). 

I read The Golden Compass in sixth grade, and I enjoyed it, though for whatever reason I didn't love it. This time, I appreciated the world-building and the suspense much more; The Golden Compass is really atmospheric and an amazing read. The alternate Europe that Pullman creates is so compelling, as are the descriptions of the Far North, such as Svalbard (by the way, the capital is Longyearbyen). The daemons, too, are fascinating, and Pullman writes really movingly of the bond between daemon and human: "it was such a strange tormenting feeling when your daemon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love." I really almost felt that bond while reading that passage, and also in a few other places. It's quite affecting. 

The Golden Compass also has plenty of fast-paced and breathless action and intrigue, which is so entertaining. There's a lot that goes on in this book, which goes from Oxford to London to Bolvangar to the far Northern reaches of Svalbard in a fairly short span of time. There are chilling sequences dealing with the activities of the Gobblers, and imaginative creations such as the panserbjorne, and of course daemons themselves. Pullman's style is quite descriptive, but not in a bad way, and I could really picture the world as I read, from the beautiful and grand Jordan College to the freezing far reaches.

Lyra herself can be kind of annoying as a character; she's oblivious and a bit self-centered. However, I loved the character of Pan, her daemon, and the fierce link between them. There's nothing wrong with unlikable characters either, and Lyra isn't too bad. But she's still a rough-and-tumble girl without much knowledge besides the smattering she's learned at Jordan College. 

Despite all the fantastical stuff, The Golden Compass is really believable, mainly because of the way it's written. It doesn't feel stretched or anything, and everything in the world is explained really well, although I would like to know more about daemons and how they could be explained scientifically. Later on, there's talk of scripture explaining the dust, and this alternate world is masterfully created.

Iorek is quite a compelling character. He's the giant armored bear who Lyra befriends. Really, Pullman does such a good job portraying the differences between the way the humans in the novel think and the way the bears, fierce and alone, without daemons, conceive of their world. And it's by playing with these perceptions that Lyra and her companions manage to win against their enemies.

The descriptions of the Gobblers (a.k.a Mrs. Coulter) at work are definitely quite chilling, some of the most dread-inducing sequences in the whole book. Even more so are the descriptions of the compound at Bolvangar, where children are taken for nefarious purposes. 

The Golden Compass is really, really good, and no doubt I'll be reading the sequel sometime soon.

351 pages. 

Rating: ****

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