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Fri, Jan. 13th, 2006, 03:28 pm
Reading List: The Golden Compass

Read: The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman.

This is a very nearly perfect book, and I only say very nearly because it failed to go on forever. On the surface, it looks like a standard young adult fantasy novel, complete with a Young Girl Who Has A Destiny. Really, though, the book is far more profound, but it manages to be profound without ever forgetting to be entertaining.

Pullman is a brilliant world-builder, which is perhaps his greatest strength. He doesn’t over-explain the universe he creates, but every piece of it seems to fit coherently with the others. Witches who fly through the northern night on branches of cloud-pine, talking polar bears whose armor is their soul, atomcraft and anbaromagnetism and the Consistorial Council of Discipline - it all feels familiar, as if one had simply forgotten that all these things were, yes, of course, a part of the world we know.

And then, of course, there are daemons. A daemon is a human being’s soul, which takes the form of an animal and accompanies them throughout their whole life. Your daemon is your best friend and constant companion, who loves you and knows you better than anyone ever has or ever will. And of course, daemons are both a philosophical statement by Pullman and an excuse for some wonderfully brilliant plot. You see, the daemons of children are capable of shape-shifting, but when the child matures the daemon becomes fixed. That implies a certain difference between innocence and experience, but why? And what does it mean? These sorts of questions drive not only Pullman-the-author, but also the characters in the book. Pullman’s ability to make concrete the philosophical questions he’s trying to answer, and to embody them in the story, is perhaps his greatest genius.

On the other hand, the plot and characters are absolutely delightful, and deserve special attention as well. Pullman isn’t afraid of plot - in fact, he’s rather in love with it - and the twists and turns he puts his characters through are spellbinding. Disguises, narrow escapes, and last-minute rescues abound! The characters are equally up to the task of carrying the plot, particularly the fierce armored bear Iorek Byrnison (not a tame bear; he’d eat Aslan for lunch) and the sleek, brilliant, devious Mrs. Coulter. And Lyra herself is charming, without being a cutesy-cute perfect little Mary Sue child. It’s her flaws that appeal, her fierce savagery and her easy willingness to lie and her deliberate stupidity at times. Lyra is a kid who actually seems like a kid, even though we know the novels are going to chronicle her growing up.

Really, the only excuse for not going out and getting this book tomorrow is if you’ve already read it - and in that case, I’d say “Read it twice!” I keep coming back to this story over and over again, and I can’t imagine anyone loving it less.