That pretty much sums up my review of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. I just finished it, oh, about 5 minutes ago and couldn’t wait to write about it. My interest in the book started after the controversy surrounding the movie. Apparently, Pullman is an atheist, and His Dark Materials trilogy, of which Compass is the first part, is his answer to C.S. Lewis’ Christian themed Narnia series.
I was raised in a strict Baptist school for most of my life, where a literal interpretation of the Bible was hammered into my head until the 8th grade. Admittedly, I was once devout, but the world of philosophy and history and science and other religious doctrines opened my mind toward agnosticism. To this day I still feel a level of bitterness toward my Christian upbringing (brainwashing?), so I take pleasure out of anything that opposes my indoctrination. The movie, unfortunately, was a failure on almost every level. Even my wife, who loves Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, told me, “Never take me to these kind of movies again!” But I’d read so much about Pullman’s excellent prose that I couldn’t resist picking him up. And BOY was I surprised.
The book starts out slow . . . very much a kid’s book, but the main protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, shows a level of cleverness and heroism and passion I found sorely lacking in the Harry Potter books. And, unlike so many cliched fantasy novels littering bookstore shelves today, Compass is a fairly unique world, a turn of the century alternative version (you could say mirror image) of our world, with slight but significant differences, such as human souls that take the form of animals and an intelligent race of armor wearing bears. What really puts Compass over the top for me, however, is its willingness to tackle big concepts: religion and its relationship to science, the idea of God and elementary particles, alternate dimensions and original sin. As for Pullman’s style, it’s a perfect balance between beautiful prose and an easy read, a modern style I’d be happy to emulate. My only complaint, and it is a minor one, is that in terms of perspective the book seems a bit too simple. I don’t know if this was intentional to make it easier for younger readers, but it seemed to have the opposite quality from Martin’s Game of Thrones in that there is really only one character to follow (Lyra). Other than that, a great read, **** stars, and I can’t wait to tear into the next one.