Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

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Review: The Golden Compass

PHILIP Pullman's novel The Golden Compass is a damn fine read. The prose is nearly flawless, the pace never falters, the characters are memorable and disturbing, and the world Pullman creates is wild, dangerous, romantic, fascinating.

It is a world that seems very much like our own, at least at first. The (apparently) orphaned young heroine, Lyra, is raised in Oxford University by the dons, in a London that seems to resemble our own. Except that Lyra has a familiar, a 'daemon' as the book calls him, Pantalaimon, a sort of extracorporeal manifestation of her soul, who can assume many shapes, and talk to her, after a fashion. In fact, every human has a daemon. Lyra's world is vaguely English Victorian in character, and is ruled by a benign Roman Catholic theocracy. There are airships, zeppelins, balloons and the like, but no airplanes. There are no electric lights, but something called 'anbaric' lights, which seem similar. There are intimations of atomic power. There are witches, far away in the North, and armored bears, and the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, when observed closely, reveals a city in the sky...

The plot is basically a quest, evolving and changing as Lyra undertakes it, which is not completed by the end of the novel, and continues in the next two books in this trilogy, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

The writing is first-rate. Pullman, himself an Oxford graduate, obviously loves the conventions of the Victorian novel, and the conventions of Western literature in general. For example, in describing a fight between two panserbjørne, armored bears, we get this Homeric simile:

Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean, and which makes little stir in the deep water, but which when it reaches the shallows rears itself up into the sky, terrifying the shore dwellers, before crashing down on the land with irresistible power—so Iorek Byrnison rose up against Iofur...

The characters, like their world, are well-developed, complex, and memorable. Many otherwise entertaining writers cannot create convincing characters to save their lives. *cough*Heinlein*cough* Pullman, though, can and does: Lyra, his protagonist, the 'barbarian' child, an accomplished liar and tall-tale teller, but innocent of the snares and dangers of the wider world; Lord Asrial, her 'uncle', arrogant, brave, visionary, ruthless; Lady Coulter, brilliant, beautiful, and dangerous; Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear whose armor is his soul, who is a better father to Lyra than her own father.

This book is marketed as 'young adult' fiction. It's considerably darker than the Harry Potter books (or at least the first one, which is all I have read so far), and probably isn't appropriate for readers under age 10 or so. For example, we are told early on of an adulterous affair that ends in a murder, and the description of the outcome of the bear fight mentioned above borders on grand guinol. I gather that in the later books Pullman challenges the basis of Christian faith, which will not please people looking for another Narnia. I loved it, however, and I'm looking forward to the next two books in the series.

Philip Pullman
New York, New York, 1995
ISBN: 0345413350

[Spelling corrected, argh, 7/17/02]


meaning: reward, thanks, propriety, bow
お礼 == orei == thanking, expression of gratitude
礼服 == reifuku == full dress
Left radical is variant of 'altar' (示), right is 'kneeling figure'. Henshall suggests as a mnemonic:  'Praying at altar is act of propriety.'


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