YotFC REVIEW: The Golden Compass

Philip pullman
the golden compass (his dark materials 1)
Knopf Books for Young Readers
young adult fantasy
november 13, 2001 (kindle edition)

Blurb 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.

Slight spoilers, though nothing big.

This is part of my (much-suffering and neglected, as per usual) Year of the Fantasy Classic reading challenge and my third review for it.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for quite some time. I bought the trade paperback size several years ago and was content that I’d get to it soon. That has to have been at least five or more years ago now. Given that I have a small kidlet, it shouldn’t be a surprise then that I did manage to watch the movie before reading the book. And I might get some flack for this…but I just might like the movie better.

I started off pretty good with this one because the worldbuilding felt incredibly rich at first. The author’s style really excels in this regard, and I loved the descriptions of thestyle of life that Lyra leads at Jordan College. Some of it is pretty minute, but at that time I didn’t feel this was a bad thing because the author does such a good job with the details. I have a particular fondness for vivid descriptions that relate how people lived in certain time periods, their day-to-day chores and duties, their customs, etc. I felt like the author did a great job establishing a foothold for the worldbuilding in this manner.

Where the book eventually began to lose me was the characters. Eventually they just have to take the reins and I was really disappointed to feel disconnected from all of them due to a severe lack of character development. Lyra herself was so abrupt in her thought processes  (which often felt, as a result, sudden and not very well connected, kind of like, well, a child who is in the dark) and much of her advancement in the story depends on lumbering adults who get to make all the important decisions. While she does make some decisions on her own that give her a little agency as the lead character, I didn’t feel like these happened enough in the story, or maybe just quickly enough, to keep the story from feeling mired down in pace.

I was increasingly disappointed that the characters didn’t do much for me in the long run because this is seriously a rich world and amazing concept for a book to boot. I don’t understand how or why the characters wouldn’t be given as equal attention to use it all. That’s what the worldbuilding is there for – for the characters to use it to its fullest potential and make all the cool settings and cultures and whatnot all worth having in turn. They should compliment one another. Instead we get a stunted child lead that was on the cusp of being a great character (of all of them she is at least the best developed, but it’s still not enough), a melodramatic and cardboard set of pseudo parents in Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter that were so purple at times it was ridiculous (that ending was pure awful) and a gorgeous yet under-used Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørn, or ice bear, who, mighty as he tries to be, is nothing more in the end than Lyra’s sidekick and yes-bear. What I’m trying to say is, outside of Lyra’s (while understandably) narrow scope, there’s not much room for other characters to really mature and take on their own voices. All of these characters and many others have their own unique and amazing setups but they’re pretty much neglected when it comes down to it.

Due in large part to the movie, there’s been a lot of hype about this series, but it started with the book, and the book is what convinced me in the end to give it a try. I hate being on the outside looking in, and I wish I’d enjoyed the book more, but in the end I think I’ll just occasionally enjoy watching the film with my kidlet as opposed to moving on with the book series. The film does seem to get most of the important aspects of the book down. Sure, they could have done a better job, but there’s only so much anyone can do with the allotted usual 2 or so hours, and you’ll never please all the fans. In the interest of total honesty, some aspects and nuances in the film – for example, the nurses and workers at the station in the north being somewhat out of touch – made more sense after reading the book. There was plenty from the book that wasn’t worth putting into film forma, though, some of it repetitious and just plain droll. The ending to The Golden Compass, fiction-wise, didn’t impress me at all and the glaring lack of character development tells me that I probably won’t enjoy further efforts from the series. Without equal development given to the characters, which I grant could possibly happen later in other books, I’m just not going to ever be as invested as I’d prefer.

Rating: Two Scoops

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  1. Hey Kmont! I have this book in my TBR. It has been languishing there for quite a long time now…

    I know you didn’t personally enjoy it, but… do you think that young adults will enjoy this book? What age range would you say this book is geared toward, and would you recommend it for that age range?

    You know that I don’t usually read young adult fantasy (or romance) as a rule, but I do read certain books and follow certain series in order to recommend them to my young adult (tween) and (teen) nieces, nephews, etc… So, I’m interested in your answer.

  2. Hey, Hils! I think this series is good for just about any young reader starting around age 10-12. The only reason I say that is because at times the concepts and ideas presented do get a little complicated. Younger kids might not remain interested, know what I mean? There’s nothing that I’d personally object to as far as violence or anything like that. There are some mild violent situations, but it’s nothing particularly expanded on when it happens or very detailed. I can think of maybe one scene where there’s some detail that is, while short, gets the point across clearly and that’s when the ice bears duel. Other than that, can’t think of anything!

  3. It’s been years since I’ve read this, but I do remember liking it and desperately wanting a daemon, plus enjoying the world Pullman built. I’m sorry to hear The Golden Compass was a disappointment. On the upside? I really want to watch the movie because of your review. :-)

  4. I really loved this book (despite the issues you point out) because of the world-building and the concepts and the sheer potential it had brewing. Unfortunately the 2nd and 3rd books just didn’t do more than get into weirder and weirder concepts and world-building and I just didn’t care about the characters at all.

    • Thanks for your opinion, Pamelia! A couple of others told me pretty much the same thing, which is partly why I’m not going to continue on. If those characters aren’t pulling their weight after a while it’s as if what’s the point.

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