Review: The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 27

4 – Plot/Story is interesting, believable and impactful.

The Golden Compass (also known as Northern Lights and/or His Dark Materials, Book 1) is the first in the world-famous fantasy trilogy by English writer Philip Pullman. This book won the Carnegie Medal in Literature in 1995, then was named the “Carnegie of Carnegies” in 2007, after a public vote on the best Carnegie-winning books of the past 70 years.  The first impression one gets while (and after) reading this book is that it is not a typical Young Adult fantasy novel, though it is often described as such.  Author Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) described Pullman as being an author “whose books have begun to dissolve the frontier between adult and juvenile fiction.”  This is certainly true with The Golden Compass.  The story tackles deeply philosophical themes and widely cherished traditions, putting its main character, Lyra, in direct conflict with two powerful schools of thought: Christianity and Humanism.  Though the main character might be a child, the dangers are very real; indeed, some scenes are shockingly adult in nature.  Largely an adventure story, Lyra finds herself companion to Gyptians (gypsies), armored bears, witches, and clockwork spies.  She sets off to save a friend of hers, who has been captured by “the Gobblers” and, along the way, learns more about the world and herself than she could have ever imagined. 

3 – Characters well-developed.

The only somewhat disappointing element to this largely enjoyable and thought-provoking story was its characterization.  While there are absolutely a wide-range of characters, including those of different species, different political and philosophical viewpoints, and different temperaments, none of them (with the exception, perhaps, of Lyra’s parents – who might somewhat surprise the reader, in the end) are expressly or purposely developed, including Lyra.  For some reason, it is hard to connect with Lyra, except, perhaps, in the moments when she and her daemon, Pantalaimon, are at risk of separation.  Perhaps this is intentional, considering the major conflict in this story is the idea of intercision – the separating of a youth’s physical body from their daemon, the animal aspect indicative of their soul.  In general, though, the interaction between characters was believable and interesting.  One of the most fascinating elements of the story is the relationship between humans and their daemons – Pullman truly captures what a special relationship this is, and creates certain rules that are never expressly spoken (such as the fact that all daemons are the opposite gender from their humans), but which add wonderful layers to the story and the fantasy world overall.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

After reading The Golden Compass, it is safe to say that this series may become my second-favorite “YA” (I use that descriptor very cautiously) fantasy series, after Harry Potter.  This is partially because the story itself is deep, interesting, and unique, but also largely because of how well it is written.  Pullman’s style is refreshing – it comes across as serious and important, which is sometimes lacking in the fantasy genre, particularly in fantasy for younger readers (Tolkien, Salvatore, etc. excluded).  What is genius about the prose and language is that it somehow manages to match the tone of the story, which is complex and dangerous, while also keeping in mind the youth of its main character.  Pullman has created a beautifully vivid, well-imagined world, where multiple-universes are possible, and his talent for translating that world onto the page and into the readers’ minds is superb. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The trilogy is perhaps best known as the athiest’s answer to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series.  Pullman, a self-described “agnostic atheist” and Humanist told The Washington Post in an interview that the trilogy was not created “to offend people;” instead, he saw them as “upholding certian values that . . . are important, such as life is immensely valuable and this world is an extraordinarily beautiful place.”  He went on to say that he thought “we should do what we can to increase the amount of widom in the world.”  Ultimately, Northern Lights is the entryway for these ideas – a pursuit of knowledge, a questioning of traditional doctrine and authority figures, and a commitment to one’s self and one’s own personal growth and development.  We see these ideas at work in the main character, Lyra, especially in her bold individuality but also in her devotion to her daemon, Pan, and in her willingness to listen and to learn (if not always to obey).   

Suggested Reading for
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Fantasy, Multiple Universes, Atheism, Humanism, Spirituality, Independence, Good & Evil

Notable Quotes:

“You cannot change what you are, only what you do.”

“That’s the duty of the old,’ said the Librarian, ‘to be anxious on the behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old.”

“Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it. Death is going to die.”

“Being a practiced liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.”

“Men and women are moved by tides much fiercer than you can imagine, and they sweep us all up into the current.”

“We are all subject to the fates. But we must act as if we are not, or die of despair.”

14 Comments on “Review: The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman

    • I really do want to go right into the next book, but I’ve got so many other things planned…


  1. I think this was actually my least favourite of the trilogy (and, don’t get me wrong, I liked it a LOT) so you’ve got a lot to look forward to with the next two books! Hope you enjoy them too 🙂


    • That’s actually good to hear! I thought this one teetered on the edge of Amazing – it didn’t quite make it, in my opinion, because of the lack of character depth (particularly in Lyra). If that improves for books 2 & 3 – then I think they’ll be incredible experiences.


  2. This was a superb review! I first read the series a decade ago, and it was agonizing to wait for The Amber Spyglass. I listened to the audio a couple of years ago, but I’d really like to sit down with the books again one day. I look forward to reading your thoughts about the rest of the series. 🙂


  3. I read this one after it was first published (I was in the 7th grade), and I loved it SO MUCH. I hate to wait anxiously for the other two to come out and bought them as soon as I found them. I’ve reread them a few times, but not anytime in the last 5 years. And while I certainly enjoyed this one, I think the second and third books are just amazing. The third book, in particular, gives you a lot to think about! I look forward to seeing your thoughts on those in the future!


  4. I’ve owned this series for a few years now and I’m not sure why I haven’t picked them up. I am extremely interested in all the backlash it received and can appreciate the author’s perspective. I hope I love them, too!


  5. I used to love this book so much when I was younger, but it’s been so long since I read it that I can barely remember the main plot! Maybe I’m due for a reread…

    I love all the quotes you included, especially “That’s the duty of the old,’ said the Librarian, ‘to be anxious on the behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old.”

    So true!



  6. ouw…this is one of my favorite series, if read the first book it may looks like another YA, but continue on the second part, the stories plot on different character, then in third books, 2 character will find their destiny as a living person in the world (reminds me on the first moment God create human) … so this is not suitable for YA, like CS Lewis Narnian Series, the whole stories need deep thinking and intrepretation.


  7. Awesome Review!thanks for sharing your thoughts. I bought this series because I want to know the continuation of the story the film was such a cliff hanger and they all say the book is always better so I’m all set to read them lol :))


    • I actually bought the series because of the movie, too! I had heard of the books before then, but didn’t really look into what they were all about until I saw a trailer for The Golden Compass. Still, years later, I hadn’t read them… so I put the first one on my personal challenge list for 2012. I hope to finish the others this year, too.


  8. This series (plus the Narnia books) is still on my to-read list. Having seen a few reviews on both of the series, I’m starting to wonder why I ever confused the two. Somehow, I think I’ll like Pullman’s books better. Will you continue with the second book anytime soon? Or are you only reading Austen in August?


  9. Pingback: The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman « She Reviews Everything

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