By Philip Pullman“We are all subjects to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not,” said the witch, “or die of despair. There is a curious prophecy about this child: she is destined to bring about the end of destiny. But she must do so without knowing what she is doing, as if it were her nature and not her destiny to do it. If she’s told what she must do, it will all fail; death will sweep through all the worlds; it will be the triumph of despair, forever. The universes will all become nothing more than interlocking machines, blind and empty of thought, feeling, life . . .”
The Golden Compass is the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material series. It is everything that I should love: fantasy, magic, child heroines, and mysterious prophecies. Other people love it. Clearly. It won the Carnegie Medal in 1996, and in 2006 readers voted for their favorite Carnegie medalist from the last 70 years and awarded The Golden Compass the Carnegie of Carnegies. I read it in two days. It was a good book, and I really enjoyed reading it. But it was missing that special spark that makes a book great.
The novel takes place in a parallel earth where many similarities exist, but there are significant differences. Humans are followed everywhere by their Daemons, which are like one’s soul taking the form of an animal outside of the body. The church is the main political force. There are talking armored bears, fierce warriors who defend their kingdom in the north. The world seems more primitive, a little bit wilder. It is full of the unknown, mystic beings, and unseen powers. Lyra, a young girl with a special gift, journeys to the north to rescue children who are being kidnapped. Unbeknownst to her, she is destined to do great things.
What’s not to love? It should be amazing. But as much as I hoped it would be, it just wasn’t. Perhaps I expected too much. It was third on the BBC’s Top 100 list after all, preceded only by Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. But that doesn’t change the fact that the plot felt a little too obvious, the foreshadowing felt a bit forced. Granted, it is a children’s book, and writing for a child is very different than writing for an adult. Language will be less flowery and more matter-of-fact, but children are not stupid and they do not need a dumbed-down plot.
As the first book in the trilogy, the story moved slowly and seemed more like an introduction than a book that could stand alone. In the very last pages of the book we finally reach the climax, a cheap way to get readers to buy your next book in my opinion. And in fact, if The Golden Compass had not ended with a bit of a cliffhanger, I don’t think I would have been compelled to finish the series. But it did end with a cliffhanger. And that is enough to rouse my curiosity. I will read the rest of the series, but I’m more interested in figuring out what mind-blowing genius I seem to be missing than what mysterious force makes Lyra so special.