The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is a captivating fantasy book. The first in a series of three, it introduces the reader to the female protagonist, Lyra Belaqua. A tenacious orphan being raised by professors at Oxford College in England, she has a larger than life destiny to fulfill. The reader knows right away that they are in for a treat when on the first page they read about daemons. Every human has an animal-like companion, possibly representing a physical manifestation of their very soul. Lyra's daemon's name is Pantalaimon. When people are still young these creatures have the ability to change form. When the reader is first introduced to Pantalaimon she is a moth, but can change into a mouse or bird, etc. Daemons lose their ability to change form when the human becomes an adult (a panther, an evil monkey etc.), as if their personality has been settled on.
The adventure begins straight away in this book. Lyra is snooping about the Hall when she witnesses the Master putting poison into her uncle's wine decanter. She warns her uncle about the poison, saving his life. With these words spoken by the Master on page 29 the reader realizes that the uncle may be the villain, and not the Master who has tried to poison him "The question was whether doing that would be worse than the consequences of not doing it." The mystery revolves around something known as Dust, and Lyra is bound and determined to get to the bottom of the secrecy.
The reader gets to know and love Lyra and her friend, the kitchen boy, Roger through the the escapades that they have about town. She loves to cause fun mischief, usually at the expense of the Gyptians, wandering boat people.
Mystery and intrigue come into play when unattended children begin to disappear. Many of the Gyptian children are stolen. Lyra gets involved when her friend Roger comes up missing. People are saying that the "Gobblers" are taking the children. In the meantime, Lyra is given the opportunity to go and live with a bewitching and intelligent woman, Mrs. Coulter. At a party Lyra learns that Mrs. Coulter is the head of the Gobblers, known as the Oblation Board. At learning this she runs away. The Gyptians find and hide her. She sets out on her quest with a rescue party to find the missing children who have been take to the North. This quest is mounting up against terrible odds; evil witches, armored bears, and ghoulish creatures not to mention the Oblation Board itself. Before she leaves the college the Master gives her a rare device known as an alethiometer, which has the ability to tell the reader the truth. She becomes adept at reading it and uses it often to help her discern things.
When Lyra is kidnapped by some traders and sold to the Gobblers, she finds Roger and through a series of events rescues the children from the terrible fate of being separated from their daemons (great responsiblilty that affects the fate of others.) She discovers the truth about who her parents really are (Uncle Asriel and Mrs. Coulter) and what they are up to. The book ends when her father sacrifices (kills) her friend Roger by separating him from his daemon to create the burst of energy that he needs to make it into other worlds that he has discovered. The book ends with the reader dangling, wanting to read the next book in the series. Lyra is sure to get revenge but not without a lot of adventure and drama.
This book is complex, involving many of the conventions of fantasy. The quest that Lyra sets out on certainly appears to be doomed and the number of possible outcomes is numerous. At one point the reader fears that Lyra is going to be separated from Pantalaimon. There are many allegorical parallels that one can draw. One can be likened to Mrs. Coulter and her smooth and sophisticated ways with a ability to suck in weak and helpless, much like worldliness itself is an inviting trap. Good does eventually prevail in this book, but not without sacrifice. Roger is killed. Lyra is determined to get revenge, leaving the conclusion of this book as a resting place before the next adventure begins in The Subtle Knife.
Philip Pullman won the Carnegie Medal, the highest award in England for this book. Read his speech here: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/philippullman/speech.html
Pullman, Philip. 1995. THE GOLDEN COMPASS. New York: Dell Yearling. ISBN: 0-440-41832-1.