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Book cover art by Ericka O'Rourke & Cliff Nielsen (left).
Review © 2001 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Philip Pullman's remarkable trilogy His Dark Materials are among those rare books that bridge the gap between juvenile and adult fiction, accessible to young readers while respecting their intelligence, as well as the intelligence and sophistication of adult readers who may be lured to the novels by the promise of the evocation of lost childhood wonders. In many ways they read like the elder siblings of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, though Pullman's fantasy is much less whimsical than Rowling's, threatening to provoke the kinds of philosophical musings in young minds that they aren't very likely to get from their regular diet of escapism. But Pullman outdoes Rowling in the high adventure department as well; the first novel of this trilogy is a dazzling modern fantasy masterpiece by the standards of any reader, of any age.

Set in a stunningly realized world described as "like ours, but different in many ways," The Golden Compass (British title: Northern Lights) tells the story of nine-year-old Lyra Belacqua, a ward of Jordan College set in this alternate Earth's alternate England. Jordan College specializes in the esoteric study of "experimental theology," and this is one of the many examples of Pullman's wholly original approach to combining the real and the unreal. In Pullman's world, every living person has a "daemon," an animal familiar that changes shape at will all through the person's childhood, but which settles into one form upon their puberty. Intercision — to be separated from one's daemon — is a tragedy too horrible to contemplate; it's as if the very essence of life itself is erased from the unfortunate victim. Pullman subtly introduces all of the fantasy elements of his story in such a way that we are drawn into the tale naturally, rather than by having the story put on hold for chapters at a time so that we can be filled in on backstory. For instance, electricity in Pullman's world is called "anbaric power." We aren't informed of this. We're simply able to figure it out through the context of the narrative, the true sign of an artist who respects his audience.

Lyra is far more interested in playing, exploring, and goofing off than in studying, but all of that changes one fateful day when she learns her uncle, one Lord Asriel, is coming to the college. She sneaks into a forbidden meeting room to overhear what he might have to say to the heads of the school. Instead, from her hiding place she witnesses an attempt by the Master to poison Lord Asriel, which she manages to foil just in time.

Gradually, Lyra begins to learn of a mysterious particle found in the extreme north known only as Dust. Dust is thought by Lord Asriel and others to be a link to another world, perhaps another whole universe, and yet the Papacy, which controls virtually every aspect of day-to-day life much as it did in the Middle Ages, naturally feels its dogma threatened by this potential fact. Thus a planned expedition to the north by Lord Asriel is held in disfavor by some very powerful people, to say the least.

Lyra's life becomes even more interesting when she learns she is to leave the school with the beautiful and exotic Mrs. Coulter, who knows Lord Asriel and seems to have a deep and abiding interest in his studies. But before Lyra leaves the school, she is given a gift by the Master: a device called an "alethiometer," designed much like a golden compass, except with multiple hands and arcane symbols surrounding its face. This device, she learns, simply tells the truth, although it is used intuitively and almost subconsciously; Lyra is able to use it unfailingly to divine the facts behind any matter, but she cannot say exactly how she makes it work. Of course, it transpires that Lyra is involved deeply with Lord Asriel's expedition, and will play a prominent role in its outcome, though exactly what that outcome will be remains to be seen.

Pullman combines the traditional sense-of-wonder that one expects to find in epic adventure stories with an atmosphere of elegant eerieness and dreamlike portent. The effect is almost intoxicating. Few fantasists this side of Clark Ashton Smith or A. Merritt have managed to evoke it so effectively. Memorable characters, settings, and scenes simply spill from this story like fruit from the fabled horn of plenty. Readers will find themselves as stimulated intellectually as they are emotionally as they follow Lyra's odyssey into the frozen north, accompanied by her ever-faithful daemon and Iorek Byrnison, an armor-plated, intelligent polar bear of the panserbjørne race. Iorek figures in one of the most incredible battle scenes it has ever been my wide-eyed pleasure to read.

This novel and its sequels have earned Pullman multiple awards, including England's prestigious Carnegie Medal. It even earned a place on the Observer's list of the "100 Greatest Novels of All Time" (it was #98). But don't allow yourself to be affected positively or negatively by all the hype; go in to this story expecting an exhilarating, magical adventure, and that's exactly what you will receive. Trust me. The compass never lies.

Followed by The Subtle Knife.