Review Revisited: Philip Pullman – The Golden Compass
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.
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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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