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Review Revisited: Philip Pullman – The Golden Compass

March 16, 2012

Re-Read. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
His Dark Materials, Book 1

Read my review of book:
2. The Subtle Knife
3. The Amber Spyglass

Read By: Philip Pullman and a full cast
Length: 10h 44m (399 pages)

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Originally Read: 22 March 2006
Re-read Finished: 17 February 2012

All of the grown-ups
who fear Dust should probably
steer clear of my house.

Summary: Lyra Belacqua lives at Jordan College at Oxford – in a world like but not quite like ours – installed there by her uncle, the famous explorer Lord Asriel. In theory, she’s supposed to be being educated by the scholars, but in reality, she mostly runs wild, exploring the hidden secrets of the school and getting into trouble, with her beloved daemon Pantalaimon always by her side. However, not all is well in Lyra’s world: all of the adults seems obsessed with something dangerous called Dust, and what’s worse, children have been disappearing, snatched by a group nicknamed the Gobblers. When Lyra’s best friend Roger is taken, she is eager to find him, but before she can set out, she is taken off to London in the company of the elegant but cold Mrs. Coulter. Lyra’s been given a strange, wondrous instrument by the Master of Jordan College, and told to keep it secret from Mrs. Coulter, but she’s not sure what she’s supposed to do with it… take it to Lord Asriel, or use it to save Roger? And how can she do either while she’s under Mrs. Coulter’s thumb?

Original Review: This book (the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy) was better than I expected in every respect. First, the audiobook is done by a full cast instead of a single narrator, which I usually hate, but this production was excellently done and not distracting or stagey at all. Secondly, the book… well, it’s fantastically good. I picked it up because it was on one of those “What to read while you wait for the next Harry Potter” lists, and I can’t really compare it directly, because they’re very different books, but… This book was so well written, so unique, and so dark. It’s billed as a kid’s book, but the main plotline concerns a group of adults who are abducting children and cutting away part of their souls. Not exactly light going. Also, this book sucked me in quickly and kept me invested – at several very suspenseful parts, I’d realize that I’d actually been holding my breath. Highest recommendation.

Thoughts on a Re-Read: This was my third – or possibly fourth? – time through this book, and while I (obviously) love it as much as ever, two things really stood out to me this time around. The first was just how much Pullman packs into this book. It was something I’d realized about later books in the series, but it’s certainly true in this one as well: there’s daemons, there’s Dust, there’s Oxford, there’s the Magisterium, there’s kidnapping, there’s the Gyptians, there’s the alethiometer, there’s witches, there’s prophecies, there’s hot air balloons, there’s armored polar bears, there’s all kinds of stuff. Pullman does a fantastic job pulling all of this stuff together, and doing it so that you never notice him actively world-building. The first chapter, with Lyra and Pan hiding in the closet of the retiring room during Lord Asriel’s presentation, is a brilliantly done piece of craft; you get characters and worldbuilding and plot and mention of all of the major themes of the book, while all you can think about is the story, and worry about whether or not they’ll get caught. Throughout the book, I noticed how well Pullman seeds ideas and themes that are going to come up later, not just in this book, but throughout the series, while keeping the reader thoroughly engrossed in the story.

The second (not unrelated) thing that I noticed on this re-read was that this really shouldn’t be a book that works… and yet it does. There’s all of this stuff that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but it’s somehow all cohesive and doesn’t feel like anything is superfluous. There are some really huge shifts in the story (congruent with the three sections of the book: Oxford, Bolvanger, and Svalbard), but it all flows without ever feeling jumpy. There are a ton of fairly complex themes and ideas in this book, but it’s still manages to feel like non-stop action, making it accessible to the younger crowd as well. It’s got a protagonist who can be a total brat, especially when she’s around other kids, but I still can’t help but root for her. In short, it shouldn’t work, and I can forgive someone who looks at the description and thinks “…the hell?”, but Pullman’s got the magic touch and pulls it all off, and it’s brilliant.

The audio production is another thing that shouldn’t work for me, but somehow does. This was the book that convinced me that I didn’t thoroughly hate full-cast audio. They’ve got a variety of voice actors reading the dialogue (and the girl they’ve got playing Lyra can really accentuate the brattiness), with Philip Pullman reading everything else. The first time I listened to this book, I wasn’t terribly keen on Pullman’s reading, mostly because his voice is low enough that I had a hard time hearing it over the rumble of my tires if I was in the car. But this time, I’ve gotten to the point where I find his low voice soothing rather than just irritatingly quiet, and he reads his story with subtle flair. 5 out of 5 stars.

Also, as a note, I wasn’t holding my breath this time around during the scene I mentioned in my original review, probably since I knew how it got resolved. But the first time I read it, man… I very nearly passed out and fell off the elliptical machine, since I was listening to it at the gym, and it turns out that breathing while exercising is kind of important.

As a second note, I just realized that my original review is from six years ago. I’ve been doing this a long time, y’all.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

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First Line: Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2012 12:00 pm

    I keep thinking that I’m going to love this book, but the few times I’ve picked it up to read it I haven’t gotten very far. My son tried to read it and had the same experience – he said he was bored with it. I know that it’s supposed to be a great read, so maybe someday I’ll try it again.

    • March 19, 2012 11:08 am

      Alyce – If you can lay hands on the audiobook, it might be worth trying that way? It’s a story that works well having someone tell it to you, vs. reading it to yourself.

  2. March 16, 2012 12:15 pm

    I read this at my son’s urging and thought it was okay. I don’t think I’m a fair judge, though, since fantasy is not my genre.

    • March 19, 2012 11:09 am

      Kathy – I can see that; I love this book but it’s not exactly fantasy-lite.

  3. March 16, 2012 1:01 pm

    I didn’t love this trilogy as much as other people. I should reread it at some point.

  4. March 16, 2012 1:34 pm

    I love Philip Pullman’s writing, although I liked his Sally Lockhart trilogy more. When I originally read the books, I thought that Lyra was a spoiled brat and didn’t much care for her. When I reread the series a few years later, I liked her character a lot better.

    • March 19, 2012 11:10 am

      Grace – I had mixed reactions to the Sally Lockheart books – liked the first one okay, really didn’t care for the second one, loved the third one.

  5. March 16, 2012 7:35 pm

    I want to reread this again (my third time?) but maybe I should try the audio version!

    • March 19, 2012 11:11 am

      Gavin – If you can find them, they’re worth the listen – the voice actors all do a really nice job, and I think it gives a neat extra dimension to the story.

  6. March 16, 2012 8:11 pm

    I always have a hard time getting into The Golden Compass. The Subtle Knife is the one that goes along like warp speed and I can’t stop reading it, but getting through The Golden Compass is always a teeny bit of a (mostly enjoyable) struggle.

    • March 19, 2012 11:13 am

      Jenny – That’s interesting, since I have almost the exact opposite reaction. I’m always totally hooked into TGC, but the chapters in TSK that are about the witches or Lee Scorsby, I’m always like “yeah, yeah, get back to Will and Lyra.”

  7. March 16, 2012 8:53 pm

    You are absolutely right – this is a book that shouldn’t work, but does. I don’t remember who recommended it to me, but I do remember that I had no idea what the book was about before I read it. I’m glad I went into it blind, because I think any summary would have made me very reluctant to read it.

    • March 19, 2012 11:15 am

      Emily – I didn’t know much about it the first time I read it, either. I try not to read summaries too carefully in general – or when I do read summaries, I usually wind up letting the book sit on my TBR shelves long enough that I forget, and it’s a surprise again!

  8. April 12, 2012 6:59 am

    I thought the audio editions of these were fantastic, too, way back whenever I listened to them. I didn’t realize Philip Pullman read on the full-cast audio productions, though! Usually an author’s reading sounds noticeably worse to me than a professional narrator’s. The Sally Lockhart books are also good on audio.

    • April 18, 2012 5:39 pm

      Laurie – I’m not super-picky about audiobook narrators, usually, so I haven’t really noticed a consistent difference between authors and professional narrators. (With the exception of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books; Tim Curry reads most of them, but Lemony Snicket reads a few, and while he’s a fine writer, he’s no Tim Curry.) Usually I like books read by the author, because it means I get to hear the original intent of what a character is supposed to sound like, what parts are supposed to be emphasized, etc.

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