The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Insomnia leads to reading time, and renewed interest means I focused on this book.

First I asked if it was really necessary to have a modern retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  I got back some excellent feedback that, if I’m being honest with myself, presented angles on this that should have been obvious to me.  It’s a classic example of me standing in my own way because I was distracted by other things.

Now that I’ve completed this one, I can say that I’m glad I finished it, and I’m glad I took the time to do so.  I see this book as the anti-Narnia.  It’s almost the perfect counterpoint to Lewis’ classic in every way.  Where Aslan is synonymous with Christ and Paradise Regained, Pullman’s entire take is sympathy of the devil and the belief that Eve had every right to bite that apple.  He has a lot to say about God and the Church that I don’t think kids would understand in the context of this book, which makes it a bit of a schizophrenic read for me.  I can’t disagree with his ideas.  It’s part of the nuance that’s had me butting heads with Christian factions most of my life.  Like Narnia, I feel like if I’d encountered this book as a kid, I would probably be enthralled by it at the base level just because at that age it would have been something new and different, just as Narnia was when I found it, but I would have missed the overarching themes.  Narnia didn’t age well for me.  I love it for what it represents at that time in my life, and I enjoy reading about the religious themes now as an adult, but the characters don’t resonate with me as an adult.  The Golden Compass is the exact same way for me.  The themes are there, and it’s an interesting take on them, most relevant in our modern world where authority is mistrusted at almost every turn.  But the characters just aren’t resonating with me or holding my interest, and the world building just isn’t the best.  The characters actually feel very 1960s Disney in that the adults are all either clueless or evil, and the children or the talking animals are the only ones who get it.  In fact, much like with Narnia, the idea is far better than the execution.  It’s not to say the execution is bad, it’s just that I don’t feel it’s fully-formed.  It’s like I can see the fuzzy edges before the darkness at the end of what’s been realized starts filling in gaps, signifying where the world building stops.  Sue me, I’m spoiled by Tolkien.  The quantum sciences and religious themes of The Golden Compass were far more compelling to me, and I think I’d just as soon have a discussion with Pullman himself about it all, without the story getting in the way.  Someday I might come back to finish the trilogy.  Today is not that day.  Tomorrow’s not looking good either.  But someday, perhaps.  Never say never.

Going back to my initial question regarding the relevancy of this book to modern audiences… I think it is highly relevant.  But I would argue that, much like with Narnia, most people who would enjoy discussing the heavier themes of the story are likely to not be the target audience of a YA novel.  It feels like it’s two separate audiences for me.  Then again, I’m sure there are plenty of people for whom this book is perfect.  It takes all types.  Even so, I bump my rating from “average” to “good” because I do feel it handles what it needed to get across rather well, in spite of the characters’ inability to impress me.

The full cast audio version that I found on Audible is an excellent way to experience this tale.  If you’re not the type to enjoy tales centered around kids (like myself), take note that the performances here are a little too good in places.  Lyra comes across as a self-assured young character caught in the midst of her circumstance, which translates to most adult ears (including mine) as “whiny brat.”  Many of the other cast sound like they want to smack her at every turn, which feels accurate to many portrayals of the Victorian age.  To be fair, there is plenty of nuance and range in the performances, and they feel like they were perfect translations of what’s offered in the story.  The production was top notch.

3 stars


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