Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #33: The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman

I don't really think of myself as a big fan of fantasy writing. I originally started out saying I am not a fan, period, but I think it's more of a ratio problem; in fantasy writing and romance novels there seems to be an abundance of godawful tripe. My best guess is that works based on events, time periods, etc., are beginning with a story interesting enough to make at least one person write about it, so the key is making it accessible and presenting it beautifully. Fantasy novels in particular often involve whole new worlds, so you're doubling your challenge - you have to make a coherent, well ordered world, social structure, etc., and THEN create a compelling story inside of whatever you've built.

The Golden Compass is a great read, and I like it so much because its universe is a sort of pivot table linked to our own. Much like the Harry Potter series, it simply puts a mystical overlay on our everyday environment, and this allows you to get into the world of the book quickly and thoroughly. You can easily picture the characters' surroundings and understand their social behaviors. The use of this tactic made it very easy for me to get right over my normal hangups about fantasy writing and into the story.

Lyra is the heroine of the book and is just as relatable as the know this kid. She's smart, feisty, stubborn and curious, and she finds herself at the center of a huge mystery that reaches far beyond her locale. In pursuit of the meaning of "Dust," a strange substance swirling around and particularly visible near the Aurora Borealis, there is all kinds of academic research and squabbling, some of which is a set of very scary experiments which separate children from their daemons (Pullman's literal interpretation of the soul). These daemons are humans' companions and compatriots, capable of real action but always tied to their human's thoughts and physical bodies. Children's daemons can change shape, but at a certain point, everyone's daemon loses this ability and assumes a permanent form. The academics and thugs engaged in these experiments think that this shapeshifting ability might have something to do with Dust.

Lyra teams up with a motley crew as she travels north to the site of these experiments. Along the way, she is menaced by various insidious characters and must face some troubling realities about what she thought she knew. Guided by the alethiometer - the golden compass of the title - she is able to see not just the future but the present. Her ability to do so hints at her personal significance, which does not escape the notice of her fellow travellers or their allies abroad.

You can't really talk about this book without mentioning the CS Lewis connection and the atheist angle. I think the greatest tribute you can pay to this book is to say that the atheist bent is certainly there, but that the story stands on its own as an enjoyable, well wrought piece of fiction. You can say the same about the Narnia books...I loved those books when I was growing up, and didn't know or care about the Christian message therein until I was much older. I should note, too, that I don't find the atheist bent nearly as strong nor as offensive as many critics have. That can probably be chalked up to a certain kind of religious person who is constantly looking for affronts to their faith (Secret: Your faith is your faith. If someone else doesn't believe the same thing, that does not hurt you.). That all being said, there are many supplementary books that have sprung up around The Golden Compass and the rest of the series, analysing the philosophy and religion of the books, and I plan to check them out. Pullman has produced an entertaining book that nonetheless is both broad and deep, and I'd be interested in exploring it further.

399 pages

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