The first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass is a story that offers a female heroine, alternate dimensions, a blurring of the line between magic and science, and the seeds for a scathing indictment of the Church in the later books. All in all, a fine package for a young adult reader.
Lyra, the orphan protagonist of The Golden Compass, introduces us to her world in which everyone has a daemon familiar. And this relationship between humans and their daemons, as inseparable as the atom, is one of the first hints at this series’ focus on the question of humankind’s duality. In a more general sense, it highlights Pullman’s attempt to intertwine the scientific, philosophic and religious. Which he does, by the way, quite thoroughly.
Aside from all this philosophy, the novel itself is a fast-paced and compelling adventurous tale of a child trying to save her kidnapped friend and find out the truth about her new-found parents. Along the way she meets many friends, including the nomadic Gobblers, a clan of witches, and a race of armoured bears. And she discovers within herself the ability to interpret the mysterious signs of the Golden Compass, a gift the Master of Oxford passed over to her moments before Lyra is thrust into a world of adventure.
Of the three books in the series, this one seems to be the tightest (and, I feel, the least controversial in terms of negative attitudes towards the Church). Aside from a somewhat ambiguous ending, The Golden Compass is a self-contained tale of adventure, science, philosophy, religion, friendship and betrayal. I would recommend it to readers from adolescence to adulthood, and perhaps beyond.
A WARNING TO PARENTS: This series will cause your children to question religion and the Church (something that you may consider either a good or bad thing). There are enough ambiguities and grey areas in the series to allow for a good discussion of religion, science, and everything in between; however, if you would rather not get into this discussion with your child, I don’t suggest this series.