Saturday, December 28, 2013

Fantasy Review: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantastic book.

The Golden Compass presents a world where humans are accompanied by an external manifestation of their souls. They call them daemons, which might bring to mind something sinister, but in this case they are not. They take on the form of animals, linked to the nature of their human companions, shifting between forms with the speed of thought until their humans reach puberty.

The world itself is similar to ours. Basically, it's portrayed as an alternate universe or alternate reality that could exist even now alongside our own. But in this reality we have the daemon companions, flying witches who live hundreds of years, and speaking bears who are fierce and proud. Yet even these fantastic things are presented in a way that they are believable within the world they inhabit.

As for the characters, they are proud, flawed, loveable, scary, aloof, all the things that would make up a real person. Lyra, of course, is my favorite. She's a wild child left to raise herself among the street children, leading pranks and battles against other groups of them in the city. She is easy to root for, admirably pushing through her fears and working past the limitations of her own childhood to achieve her goals.

Mrs. Coulter, another of the main characters, makes an excellent villain. She is sweet, beautiful, and elegant. But she is also frightening and shows a total lack of empathy towards anyone but herself and, of course, Lyra. I won't go into any more details there, as the book will do a much better job of it.

The story also touches on an underlying theme of hypocracy and the danger of a world controlled by the Church. It presents a scenario where the fear of an unknown and the drive to eliminate sin at its source result in targeting the most innocent and vulnerable among the population: children. All in the name of the greater good, yet are we surprised that the perpetrators would not include their own children in their experiments?

Although the Church in the story seems based on christianity, I don't think the author intends this story to say that christianity itself (or rather solely christianity) is necessarily a bad thing. Instead, I get the impression that it was chosen because of the historical strength of the Catholic Church and the plausibility of an alternate reality where that power is never diminished by protestantism. I think the book is trying to show that any religion with such control and power over the government, the schools, and the general population, no matter how well meaning, could become corrupted. To say the least, this story and the parallels it draws with our world provide fuel for thought.

I highly recommend this story to those who enjoy fantasy, mystery, and adventures. I also think that those who like to look for deeper meanings, symbols, and links to real life will find this story a satisfying one.

I was loaned a copy of this book from a friend after a conversation turned to the topic of the related movie.

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