18 November 2007

The Golden Compass

Very good read. I bought the trade paperback edition with the matte cover, as I found that cover to be the most appealing. To be perfectly honest, I've seen this series many times, as Pullman is usually near Terry Pratchett on the shelves, but the covers and the descriptions on the back always put me off. It was a very, very good read. Full review below the fold.

We follow the adventures of Lyra, a presumed orphan who has spent most of her life at Jordan college. Lyra is a quite ingenious, mischievous, and likable 11-year old. It all starts with the "Gobblers." They're snatching children from the streets. Every rumor of why contradicts the next. Lyra's about to find out more than she wants to know about the Gobblers, and how they connect to her own past. And future. Any more than that, and I'd start spoiling the book.

My only real complaint is that Pullman consistently builds tension, and just as it gets to the point that you start to wonder how Lyra's going to get out of the current predicament, the cavalry arrives. It's a bit annoying. I suspect that this is partially because it's a book aimed at children, but it did get on my nerves after a while. The tension at the very end of the book was better, as it was more drawn out, and there was no certainty in the outcome even after the cavalry arrived.

As for religion, it barely came up in the first three-quarters of the book. There were references to a Church, the Vatican, and some other Catholic-sounding infrastructure. Scientific instruments were called philosophical instruments, and there was talk of "theological experiments." Everyone seems to be worried about "Dust," which we first learn of as some sort of elementary particle.

At the very end, we get a few more details about this Church, but the negativity is directed at this one, particular institution, not at religion in general. There's also some odd theorizing about the relation between Dust and Original Sin, which oddly parallels something I came across earlier this month discussing Adam and Eve as nothing more than a coming of age story (sorry; didn't bookmark the link). But as of the end of the first book, there's nothing overtly anti-religious in the series. According to the reviews I skimmed on Amazon, it does become overt in the second two books.

The last thing I want to discuss is the daemons. In Lyra's world, every human has a daemon. When children, the daemon is free to change shape to any animal, but when they become adults, the daemon settles on one form. I wouldn't have caught this, say, two months ago, but there's a strong parallel to Socrates here. Socrates talked about his daimon all the time, a sort of "inner voice." So far as I know, his wasn't visible to others, but it acted as a sort of guide or conscience to him. Here, the daemons seem to be outward projections of the humans' souls, so far as I can tell. But they act as independent beings, except that there's a limit to how far they can go from their human.

For Socrates, the daimon got him into trouble. He was promoting listening to this inward voice instead of to the institutionalized gods; he was creating new gods (you really have to hear that in Levenson's voice to fully appreciate it). I haven't read enough Socrates to know how strong the parallel here really is, but I would be very surprised if Pullman hadn't gotten some inspiration from Socrates on this point.

ADDENDUM: One other thing. There are some quite violent scenes at the end, described with just enough detail to give a child with a good imagination some very bad nightmares. However, the reading level is high enough that most young readers who make it that far can probably handle it. But it surprised me a bit.


John said...

It was a good book. The second book is really good so far (I'm about half-way). The strong anti-religious theme that I have heard so much about has still only been hinted at, except for what Lord Asriel had to say at the end of The Golden Compass.

James F. McGrath said...

Any chance the post you had in mind about the Adam and Eve story as about loss of innocence was this one? :)

Qalmlea said...

Not that one, but a link from a link off of that one. Thanks! ^/^

James F. McGrath said...

I thought it sounded familiar! :-)