Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is another book for my course that I’ve read before. Now, I didn’t really like the second and third books in the series but this one is still pretty awesome (it has a lot less annoying theology to it).
The story follows Lyra, an orphan girl who lives at a college at Oxford. Her uncle is a great explorer of the North and she is a great explorer of the warrens of Oxford. Then people start stealing children and one of her friends gets captured and then she gets to go away with Mrs Coulter, who seems very nice and urbane and sophisticated but is actually quite terrible and she escapes and joins up with the gyptians who’ve had so many children stolen in a quest to rescue them (and deliver this truth-telling compass to her uncle who’s been imprisoned in the north for his researches). There are also armoured bears. It’s four kinds of awesome.
One of my favourite parts of this alternate world they live in is that everyone has a daemon, an animal representing their soul. You talk to your daemon and until you hit puberty it changes shapes. Eventually though it settles into a form that reflects who you are. You might be unhappy with its form, and if so you’re not going to be happy with yourself. There’s a conversation with a sailor (whose daemon is a seagull) about a man he knew whose daemon was a dolphin, so he could never come on land (you can’t be separated from your daemon by much distance and there are huge unbreakable taboos against touching another person’s daemon). I fucking love that shit.
The idea of knowing who you are and having it torn away from you is just about the most personal kind of conflict and stakes you could tell a story about. Yes the adventure is a lot about Lyra being awesome and she’s got a bit of the Chosen One thing going on with her extraordinary ability to read the alethiometer (the titular compass) but I care so much about her and the rest of the characters in this story, who’re all trying to ensure that they can be in control of their selves in the face of giant bureaucracies and powerful people. It’s the most important story.
And I love the ending of the book. I remember it ending right in the middle of a climactic battle, but it’s got a bit more resolution than that before the next books in the series. Nothing is as simple as it might have been and that’s the mark of a story that’s great.
Man, I love this book. Sequels not so much, and I assume the movie was a piece of shit, but this book is great.