This was a delightful read. The Golden Compass is a book I’ve wanted to read for over 10 years now, but I kept putting it off. I’d attempted it shortly after graduating college, but didn’t feel drawn to the story and had difficulty with the concept of daemons, so I gave up on the book but vowed to return to it when I felt more receptive to the story. I’m glad I did that. Reading it in 2023 was the best time to pick it up.
His Dark Materials, book 1
The Golden Compass is the first novel in a middle-grade fantasy series. In this book, the story is set in a world that mirrors our own and is centered on Lyra Belacqua, a brave golden-haired girl who’s supposedly an orphan, which is why she’s raised among the Scholars of Jordan College (which I thought of as the equivalent of Oxford) — the only girl there as women are not often Scholars.
It’s natural, in this world, that every human has a daemon, a being in the form of an animal that’s an outward expression of the human’s inner self. A daemon completes a human, so to see a human without one is akin to seeing someone without a head, or other essential body part. Children’s daemons are quite versatile and can take on any animal form, it seems, but daemons stop changing as the human grows older and more settled into who they are.
The story here is focused on Lyra beginning to fulfill her destiny, which is prophesied to be great and lead her away from her present world. This begins to come about when she learns from her Uncle Asriel, an explorer, about the presence of Dust — which I think of as magic particles. From Asriel she learns that there are Dust particles in the Aurora Borealis, which provides a window into other worlds that people can sometimes glimpse. Asriel is interested in travelling to these other worlds and visits Jordan College to seek its Master’s approval, and funds, to do so.
However, the Magisterium, which is basically the headquarters of the Holy Church, is also interested in Dust. Why? Apparently they believe it to be physical evidence of the original sin (harking back to biblical days and Adam and Eve’s gallivanting in the Garden of Eden… with their daemons). Anyway, with the help of the singular Mrs. Coulter, a Scholar in her own right, and her Oblation Board, the Church researches Dust with the unwilling help of children, to whom the abominable is done.
Without realizing, Lyra gets caught up in both Asriel and Mrs. Coulter’s explorations into Dust. Sent to live with Mrs. Coulter for a while, Lyra later runs away and ends up travelling with gyptians to help them rescue their kidnapped children — and her best friend, Roger. With the help of an alethiometer, a queer device bestowed to her by the Master of Jordan College, Lyra is able to navigate many obstacles and dangers and get much-needed help in her effort to rescue the kids and help her friends, such as the armored bear Iorek Byrnison. It all makes for an exciting, intriguing read from beginning to end. (Goodreads)
It’s obvious that I enjoyed reading this. What made me choose to read it now was having watched and enjoyed the TV show. I know the 2007 movie adaptation wasn’t to everyone’s liking, but I enjoyed that too. The world fascinated me, even in that movie adaptation, and it did so in the TV show too. Curious about how closely the TV show stuck to the book, I finally decided to read it and was surprised that it is pretty faithful to the source material. There are some differences of course, but, as far as the first book goes, I don’t mind what’s changed and even agree with some of the tweaks.
The book itself is good. Again, the world immediately fascinated me because the daemons so interest me. I’m also curious about the undercurrent of political schemes regarding what Mrs. Coulter is up to and what the Magisterium is trying to achieve. I think we are quickly drawn into the political intrigues in the TV show, but in the book, it’s mostly a low rumble for now, which I guess makes sense since this is geared toward kids.
I also took an immediate liking to Lyra and her fiery, independent, adventurous spirit. I like how fearless she is, politely yet stoutly inserting herself in often-adult discussions to get what she wants, and using her “silvertongue” to manipulate folks into doing what she wants. But I also like how her character is written, especially when the story shows her trying on different identities that fascinate her, because it’s something all kids do. An example that comes to mind is when she begins trying to act and talk like a gyptian, and even believes she’s managed to become one, but Ma Costa had to sit her down and explain that simply talking and acting like a gyptian doesn’t make Lyra one, that there’s more to gyptians than that.
The concept of Dust and its connection to daemons and the world is interesting too, and I can’t wait to learn more. I hope they are further explored in other books. I wonder how a person’s daemon appears when they are born (if the worldbuilding digs that far), and why it’s odd for a person and their daemon to be of the same gender. It’s interesting that it’s a huge faux pas to touch another person’s daemon (is it like touching the person’s soul?), but daemons can interact with and touch each other.
The other beings in the world were fascinating too, like the armored bears living on Svalbard and the witches flying around on cloud-pine (would love a story about the witches and that initiation journey they have to take). I enjoyed watching both fight in the TV show; those parts made me realize that TV show seem to have taken some inspiration from the movie adaptation. And although I do not like her, Mrs. Coulter is a curiosity to me, in both the book and TV show, and I’d love to learn more about her and her connection to her daemon.
I look forward to reading the next book later this year (which is my way of saying soon since it usually takes me years to continue with series, unless I’m buddy-reading them). This one ended on a sad note that left me feeling sorry for Lyra and disliking both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter even more than I already do. Although I have an idea of what comes next due to having watched the TV show, I’m still eager to see what comes next in the book.
It a good read and a captivating one. I highly recommend it.