His Dark Materials, Book 1: The Golden Compass

The Knopf trade paperback edition cover for The Golden Compass.

I just finished Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, as recommended by Rebecca and Alisa, and I loved it. It’s a solid fantasy story that provides the character depth and internal workings of Ender’s Game, with a distinct and engaging world full of creatures, political intrigue, magic, science, and adventure. Even though this book is often shelved in the young adult or children’s sections, it sits in the general fiction section with equal aplomb. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a good read. Plus, each book has been reissued in a Knopf trade paperback edition, each with a gorgeous cover design featuring the work of Ericka Meltzer O’Rourke and lettering by Lilly Lee. With their comfortable size and inviting typesetting, there’s no reason not to pick these up.

Because The Golden Compass is a fantasy tale marketed to children, there are inevitable comparisons to the Harry Potter series. I’ve found that adults prefer His Dark Materials, largely because the story contains more levels of subtlety and character subtext and less goofy fun than Rowling’s series. But so far, for me, they are so distinct that the comparison isn’t really worth the time, except as a means of enticing someone to dive in.

The Golden Compass takes place, as the novel puts it, “in a universe like ours, but different in many ways”. I really reveled in this setting. The world has enough general similarities or parallels to our own, in areas such as geographic locations, cultural essences, and technology, that Pullman can give so much more to the reader without having to provide extraneous or muddling explanations. Instead, he spends time emphasizing the differences, the fantastic qualities that make this world distinct from our own. (I’ve actually just started the second book in the series, The Subtle Knife, and it’s partially set in our own world and I’m actually lamenting that a little bit, but I remain optimistic.) It makes for a rich world whose layering of real-world details and fantasy elements creates a solid bedrock upon which Pullman builds his creative and narrative structures.

The storytelling is plot-driven (which I love) but still brimming with detail and views into the minds of its characters. Pullman often creates cliffhanger situations, but isn’t formulaic about them and remains true to his characters’ motives and personalities. He doesn’t shy away from relatively complex situations, subtle machinations, or conversational manipulation. In spite of the book’s classification as a work of literature for younger readers, the main drive of the plot still leaves a good amount of room for underlying meaning.

The main character, Lyra, is a young girl (around 11 years old, I think), and her perspective on the complex and interlaced worlds of church, state, and scholarship allows Pullman to present a great amount of information in a veiled manner. Her feisty personality and forceful sense of duty and curiosity keep her navigating through deep waters, even if she’s unsure of the route. Her natural acuity and verbal deftness open doors for her amongst adults who underestimate her generally or misapprehend her intentions. So, the more inquisitive or experienced reader can gain inklings of broader issues and deeper currents, while the less rigorous or younger reader can enjoy the story from a vantage point closer to Lyra’s. The story has a deceptively straightforward drive that belies the sophistication of Pullman’s writing.

Again, this is a book that would be easy for some to dismiss before experiencing, but its rewards are more than worth it. I cut through this novel very quickly over my recent vacation and am already into The Subtle Knife. I’ll let you know how that one is as soon as I’m done, so in the meantime read this book.