Fantasy and sci-fi lovers alike ought to be happily acquainted with Philip Pullman, a master genre-bender who boldly takes readers on a kaleidoscopic magical odyssey, complete with talking animals and portals to other worlds. The Golden Compass—also known by its British title, Northern Lights—is a stunning work of creative vision, and as intellectually engaging as it is fun and exciting.
Twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua inhabits a world in which human souls manifest themselves outside their bodies in the form of dæmons: shape-shifters who take on animal forms. She and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, grow up in Jordan College, raised by scholars, professors, and servants, until the arrival of her enigmatic uncle, Lord Asriel, an explorer who experiments in theology. Upon overhearing a secret meeting involving a quest for mysterious magic particles known as Dust, Lyra is given a golden compass-like device called an alethiometer—or a “truth teller” with prophetic powers—and introduced to the beautiful and mysterious Ms. Coulter, a scholar whose arrives at the college around the time children in the area begin to disappear. When Lyra’s friend Roger goes missing, she sets out to find him and is soon drawn into a dangerous and complicated scheme involving secret experiments that transcend time and space; a journey that takes her around the world on boats, zeppelins, hot air balloons, and the back of an armored bear.
Just as Pullman’s magical world draws comprehensively on a multitude of sources—mythology, theology, astronomy, magic, and politics—it also offers a diverse cast of characters. There are tribes of witches, including the witch queen Serafina Pekkala; a nomadic ethic group known as gyptians, whom Lyra travels with for a time; and talking armored bears known as panserbjørne; which includes the bear prince, Iorek Byrnison, who becomes Lyra’s trusted companion. The villainous ones in the assorted collection are the members of the General Oblation Board, known as the Gobblers, who kidnap children and perform experiments on them in the name of religion.
The compelling driving force of the narrative is Lyra, a willful, vivacious tomboy whose brazen disregard of authority serve her well on a journey that tests her courage and resolve; yet she’s also equal parts clever and compassionate. Fittingly, her talent for lying—which gets her out of many a life-threatening situation—eventually earns her the nickname Lyra Silvertongue, bestowed on her by Iorek Byrnison.
A writer like Pullman does not adhere to the confines of genre. Just as Lyra’s expedition transcends time and space, The Golden Compass defies easy categorization, and its audience is certainly not limited to children and young adults. This also applies to the book’s two sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.