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“The Golden Compass” Book Review

Mild Plot Spoilers Below! Read At Your Own Risk!

The Golden Compass is an odd book, but a good one. The setting, the characters, the conflicts, and everything about it has an original and exotic feel to it. That doesn’t necessarily make it perfect, but it does sure help its appeal.

Let’s start with the main conflict. Where most fantasy books are about Good vs. Evil, I felt like The Golden Compass was almost The Characters vs. Authority. That leaves room for flaws and evil in the “Characters” side of the conflict, although the “Authority” side sure is made to look evil. But the conflict isn’t filled with “criminals vs. cops” or anything. It’s really “people vs. the church”.

The church!? Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard of all the fuss this book and its movie are receiving because of its anti-Christian base values. The author himself is an atheist, and I can tell that this book is leading up to a very anti-church ending in its sequels (I’m not sure if I would call it only anti-Christian; it seems to me to be more anti-religious group). Actually, I already know how the series ends because of a spam comment I found while watching episodes of Bleach on YouTube. If you don’t know the ending however, all I’ll say here is that there is definitely a better argument towards boycotting this than Harry Potter. But who cares about all of that, anyway? I chose to read The Golden Compass as a story, not a nonfiction essay. And when looked at from the perspective of a fantasy story, you’ll find more positive than negative.

Now The Golden Compass is often shelved with the “children’s books”, but it I found it to be a more “young adult” novel in my opinion. Not only are the themes complex, but the wording was surprisingly complicated throughout. Frequently you’ll find passages like this:

“Above and head of them the Aurora was blazing, with more brilliance and grandeur than she had ever seen. It was all around, or nearly, and they were nearly part of it. Great swathes of incandescence trembled and parted like angels’ wings beating; cascades of luminescent glory tumbled down invisible crags to lie in swirling pools or hang like vast waterfalls.”

Or something like this:

“She was proud of her College’s eminence, and like to boast of it to the various urchins and ragamuffins she played with by the canal or the claybeds; and she regarded visiting Scholars and eminent professors from elsewhere with pitying scorn.”

Is it that hard? Not really. But young children will certainly be stopping frequently to “sound out” words or to tug on their parents’ shirt asking if they can define something for them.


The story begins when young Lyra Belacqua and her anthropomorphic soul (a.k.a. daemon – everyone in the story has one of them) learn in their home of Jordan College about a mysterious elementary particle known as Dust. It seems to be attracted to adults and not children, so children are kidnapped and brought to the icy cold North to have gruesome experiments performed on them in church-controlled laboratories, in an attempt to find out more about it. When one of Lyra’s friends is kidnapped by the church’s General Oblation Board (or the “Gobblers” as many refer to them) and taken to the North, Lyra vows to one day find and rescue him. However, one day a mysterious and powerful woman named Mrs. Coulter visits the College and invites Lyra to live with her in Oxford. She accepts, but before leaving, Lyra is given a symbol-reading device called an alethiometer (the Golden Compass). It tells the truth, and over time Lyra develops understanding of how to use and interpret it, whereas most people can not. The College worker who gives it to her tells her not to tell Mrs. Coulter about it at all. Lyra doesn’t really understand why at first, because to her Mrs. Coulter seems to be quite a nice person. However, Lyra soon realizes that Mrs. Coulter is the leader of the Gobblers and really has evil intentions for Lyra. So, Lyra runs away and begins her journey to the North to rescue her friend, not knowing that her journey and purpose is really far grander than that – the conflict she’s running to involves the entire world, and worlds beyond her own.

Armored Bears play a large part in the story as well. They are much more clever and powerful than normal bears – in fact, they have their own kingdom up in the North. One Armored Bear who was kicked out of the kingdom, named Iorek Byrnison, is hired by the Gyptians, a fictional race of people who Lyra joins up with on her North-bound journey. Both Lyra and the Gyptians plan on rescuing children from the Gobblers, and Iorek’s massive power helps and protects them. Iorek is one of the many great and original characters in The Golden Compass. Best of all, author Phillip Pullman gives the reader a large wealth of history and background information for each new race or creature he introduces. This history instantly makes each group more interesting, and keeps the book involving.

However, the book is at its best near the end of the story, and so the story takes a little while to get going. If you stay with it though, you’re treated to a very satisfying last hundred-fifty pages or so and a great cliffhanger ending. While it may not have the same universal appeal as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, I found The Golden Compass to be a very refreshing and interesting read.

Pros: Interesting characters, full of originality, good plot twists

Cons: Some of the first parts of the book can be slow, may be a bit overly descriptive for some, a few small parts of the conflict don’t make sense

Final Score: 8 out of 10

By Josh60502

  1. November 28, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Thanks – a really good discussion of an interesting and creative book. I’d probably agree with you that it’s more young adult than junior fiction, if not for the language and concepts, then for a few fairly graphic scenes.

    Overall, one of my favourite books for young readers – a great introduction into the multi-layered novel. I do hope the anti-religion message doesn’t put too many off.

    My review: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

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