Book Club Review: “The Golden Compass”

119322We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub!

Book: “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman

Publishing Info: Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers, April 1996

Where Did We Get This Book: We both own in!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 200 (Religion)

Book Description: Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved. 

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “His Dark Materials” in college, at the insistence of my father, a huge fantasy nerd and book worm. I knew little to nothing about it when I opened the first pages of “The Golden Compass”, but was taken in almost immediately by the characters and the world that Philip Pullman created. And then my own personal copy (I have the whole series bound up in one) sat on my shelf, untouched until Anita picked “The Golden Compass” for book club. I was curious as to how I would view the book almost fifteen years after reading it the first time. But going back to “The Golden Compass” was worthwhile for me, even after all that time.

I will be honest, the stories of the entire series are so entwined in my mind that I can’t help but take influence from “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” when I look back at “The Golden Compass”. So my opinions of “The Golden Compass” now are probably affected by works that aren’t within the text of the first book, which was an interesting quandary to be in. During Book Club when Anita would ask questions about the story, I realized that my opinions of various things took influence by the series as a whole (as well as the first prequel book “The Book of Dust”), and I haven’t quite been able to remove the two. But I will do my best here. I really, really love the world that Pullman has built, an alternate universe  that have the same locations in our world, but with various changes to make it unique to its own. When he describes Oxford, it sounds like the Oxford of our world, but there are differences that make it its own unique location. Within this world are daemons, beings that take on the form of an animal and are attached to all people, functioning as a soul outside of the body. It’s such a cool concept that Pullman made of having a huge and intricate part of you on the outside instead of within. This time around reading it I definitely felt it a bit more than I did in college, as my initial thought was ‘how cool to have an animal sidekick!’. Now I was more introspective about what that would actually mean for a person.

I also really like the way that Pullman completely trusts his readers to handle the complex and dark themes that he throws their way. This book is definitely YA, but it takes on religious fundamentalism, child torture, and institutional corruption without holding much back. While the philosophical meditations on religion and dogma play out a bit more in the later two books, with The Magesterium REALLY revving up into its quest for absolute power, there are moments, like with the Gobblers that want to separate children from their daemons because they feel it attracts Dust (aka Original Sin in this world). Pullman is not shy when it comes to his thoughts on organized religion, and he doesn’t mince words about it. Reading it again reminded me just how much faith he puts in his readers to be able to tackle some of this critical thinking he encourages them to tackle.

It was really great going back and re-reading “The Golden Compass”, and now I feel like I should continue with a re-read. I feel like it held up pretty well for me, and this classic series still remains a powerhouse in YA Fantasy.

Serena’s Thoughts

Well since Kate mentioned it, I will take this opportunity to propose joint reviewing the next two books as well! Yes? Yes?

As Kate mentioned, I too struggled separating my mind with this book as a single unit outside of the trilogy as a whole. Unlike Kate, I’ve OBSESSIVELY re-read this series throughout my entire life. My mom read the first book to my sister and I when we were little, and then I remember that the next two books were various Christmas presents the years they came out. And it’s been an ongoing love affair ever since. Reading a series this way was also a peculiar experience. As a kid, most of what I got from these books was the action and yeah, “wouldn’t it be fun to have an animal side kick??” But as I’ve re-read, each time a bit older, there’s always another level to find. This alone easily earns it a spot on my top 10 lists.

But yes, reading this book alone and then discussing it for bookclub was hard. So much of the groundwork that is laid in this one seems like major plot points here, but then as you continue, expand exponentially and you realize you only had the tip of the iceberg to start with. But here it goes.

“The Golden Compass” definitely reads as the most middle grade/young adult of the series. Lyra is the singular main character and her feelings and adventures are at the center of everything that takes. The story pretty much lives and dies on whether you are interested in her. And Lyra has to be one of the great child protagonists. What makes her special is the fact that, from the beginning, it’s clear that she’s not a “good” child. She’s precocious, meddlesome, and disobedient. And yet she’s never terribly punished for these traits. Instead, all of these aspects of her personality are crucial to not only her success in this story, but to her very survival. Lying, in particular, is a specific strength of hers, and it is always presented as such: a strength. But for all this, Lyra is also incredibly brave, loyal, and loves openly, taking in those who society might overlook. All together, she makes for an excellent child lead. Pantelemon, for his part, serves as a balance to her character, and their witty banter and the supports they offer each other were always at the basis of my desire for a daemon of my own.

The story does have a slow start. I remember as a child being fairly bored for a good bit in the beginning of this story. As Kate said, Pullman doesn’t pull his punches with big ideas, and he dives right into these within the first 20 pages of the book, before readers have had time to form any other ideas for themselves. But once the action does start, it’s all great. And everything he includes strikes the perfect balance of appealing to both children and adults. Child snatchers called Gobblers? Significantly creepy for kids, but wait, they are also connected to this high-level religious dogma for adult readers. A child concentration camp where the kids break out? Great for kids! Super creepy for adults reading about events that look scarily similar to historical happenings. Armored bears? Awesome for kids! Awesome for adults! It’s really a testament to Pullman’s talent that he so neatly balance an action-packed adventure for kids while also introducing huge topics of religion and what makes up humans themselves.

And that ending! How can you NOT want read the entire series after that? Again, no punches pulled. Children are reading this, and yet Pullman doesn’t hesitate to introduce some really tough and challenging topics. Even as a kid, shocked and dismayed by these events, I remember appreciating the fact that this story felt so real, regardless of all the talk of armored bears and daemons, and I think it was because of the fact that Pullman treated these topics as not only acceptable but necessary for kids to read about as well as adults.

So, in summary, obviously I loved this book. Always have, always will.

Kate’s Rating 9: A complex and wondrous world of philosophy and fantasy, “The Golden Compass” holds up for me after all these years of holding it in high regard.

Serena’s Rating 9: A fantasy novel that finds the perfect balance to appeal to both adults and children, never shying away from addressing big topis, all while flying around in a zeppelin chasing after armored bears.

Book Club Questions

  1. Okay, everyone wants to share this: What kind of animal do you think your daemon would be? And what do you think a daemon is in that world vs our world?
  2. What did you think of the characters in this book and how did your opinions of them change as the book progressed?
  3. In this book, usually the gender of your daemon is the opposite gender from yourself, but sometimes you see a person and their daemon sharing the same gender. What do you think that Pullman was trying to convey with this?
  4. There are many different communities and groups within this world, from Oxford to The Bears to The Gyptians. Where/with whom would you want to live in this world?
  5. What religious parallels do you see between Lyra’s world and our world?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Golden Compass” is included on the Goodreads lists “Most Interesting Magic System”, and “Best Feminist Young Adult Books”.

Find “The Golden Compass” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman

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