Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Lowdown: A young girl goes far in a fantasy world.
Review:
For a while now I have been quoted complaining that maybe the time has come for me to give fantasy books another go. On one hand, during their golden age at my teens, I greatly enjoyed them; on the other, when looking back they seem like empty time wasters, sort of a women’s romance paperback for the deprived male teenager. While I definitely acknowledged this need of mine to revisit fantasy, I had a problem choosing the book to reacquaint myself with the genre through. That dilemma, however, seemed to have received its due answer after I got to watch The Golden Compass film recently: it’s a decent enough film based on a book by a similar name. More importantly, it was dead obvious the book would be ten times better than the film. So I gave the book a chance and confirmed my suspicions.
The Golden Compass is the first of a trilogy labelled His Dark Materials, which is set to follow the adventures of a young girl called Lyra (well, at least The Golden Compass follows her; I haven’t read the other two to know what takes place with them). Lyra lives in a world where all humans have a daemon attached to them: at first we don’t know much about these daemons, but slowly we learn through experience they are like soul mates and eventually, some two thirds into the book, we learn that a person’s daemon is their soul. This daemon concept is at the core of The Golden Compass’ plot, a plot I shall cease describing here because I have done so already for the film's review. For the purpose of this review, the film’s plot is loyal enough to the book.
Mind you, reading the book has significantly improved my insight on the film, simply because The Golden Compass is a rare case for me: a case where I got to watch the film before reading the book. It allowed me to appreciate the art of converting a massive book to film, but it also spoiled many of the book’s surprises for me. It allowed me to criticize the way the film had chosen to end and it allowed me to appreciate just how much the book’s sophisticated use of language and detailed descriptions add on top of what one can take from a film. Most of all, though, it made me suspect that had the film been done by a Peter Jackson and had the film been allowed to span some four hours in length instead of its insufficient two, The Golden Compass might have been a film of the same league as The Lord of the Rings; after all, both stem from world class books.
Like The Lord of the Rings books, The Golden Compass is a major page turner. Aided by the fact it does not need to supply a satisfying ending (yet), The Golden Compass is a rollercoaster ride with three peaks, one for each of the parts it is made of. While the first part does take time to pick up given the necessity to introduce us to a whole new fantasy world that is similar yet significantly different to ours, unlike The Lord of the Rings that introduction is done very well and never delves into the realm of the tedious. The rest is just a thrill that is obviously aimed at younger readers but should not disappoint older ones.
The Golden Compass has some unique attributes in its favor. For a start, its hero is a rare case of a female; we’ve been conditioned to take our heroes as males for so long we haven’t noticed half of the population is female (the much better looking half at that, and if some research I have recently read is correct, also the smarter half on average). Second, there is the way our female hero behaves: she is a chronic liar but a good person at heart, and most importantly – she will not accept authority without questioning it. And questioning she does, as throughout the book she learns the things she used to take for granted are not what they seem to be and that change is a part of life. In a world where critical analysis is just as sparse as it is valuable, our world, learning from Lyra’s attitude could prove highly beneficial. As the book evolves we are even introduced to meaningful discussions on the subject of fatalism and concepts coming directly from the world of quantum physics. These are so well integrated into the book I suspect quantum physics has never had such good publicity with the masses before.
Given its target audience and its nature, The Golden Compass is obviously screaming to be compared to the Harry Potter series. The first conclusion of such an introduction would be that all my opening statements about me not reading fantasy books since my teens are completely false, given that I have read the Harry Potters and that I attribute my renaissance with reading to that very series. That aside, what can I say through comparing the two books? Not much that is worthy of my typing here other than recommending both very warmly; both are excellent, and statements along the lines of one being better than the other do not have much objective legs to stand on. That said, I know that in Harry Potter's case the earlier books are much better than the latter; they are more original, funnier and creative. I hope the same would not apply to the two further episodes of His Dark Materials.
Overall: An excellent sort of a re-introduction to the world of fantasy. 5 out of 5 stars.
End note:
Does this mean that I am a fantasy reader again? Well, yes; but let me put it this way. Between The 5 star Golden Compass and the 4.5 star Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan, I know which book I would like to take with me to my grave and it isn't the fantasy one. It may not be as thrilling to read, but the bang for the buck (as in bang for the time I devote to reading it) is much higher with well written popular science.
Which is my way of saying that the scores I give to each book and film I review have to be taken in the context of that particular review and the environment the book/film operates in.

10 comments:

MC said...

Glad you seem to have enjoyed the book as much as I did, I'll be interested in your thoughts on the other books when you have read them also. Pieces of trivia, apparently Pullman doesn't consider the books a part of the fantasy genre! Also the American version of the Amber Spyglass was slightly censored, but don't really know how much as I've got the UK version, I have this sort of warped obssessive thing about getting the book with the title that the author intended (that's the Northern Lights to you LoL :) )

Moshe Reuveni said...

I'm annoyed now, because I've got the American version (Amazon was so much cheaper) and I despise censorship. Wanna swap?
As for the book's title, Pullman talks about it in the Blu-ray's supplementals (they're well made and warmly recommended). It's quite interesting: amongst others, he mentions the entire idea of daemons came to him later as a way to have characters speak to themselves. Given the daemons are essential to the book's core, I wonder how he develops his books.
And as for fantasy/not fantasy: Not that I think this matters much, but what genre does he consider his book to belong to? Non fiction?

MC said...

Thank you for your offer to swap books. Unfortunately (for you) I will decline your offer. As I mentioned, I'm unsure the extent of the censorship but I can probably guess, I don't think it will detract from the book anyway. I had deliberately avoided getting the books from Amazon from that reason & was finally rewarded for my patience when the books came up really cheap at Kmart of all places. Have to admit I did the same for the Harry Potter books, didn't want a book with the title HP & the Sorcerer's Stone.

As for whether the books are fantasy here's the quote from the man himself "I have said that His Dark Materials is not fantasy but stark realism, and my reason for this is to emphasise what I think is an important aspect of the story, namely the fact that it is realistic, in psychological terms. I deal with matters that might normally be encountered in works of realism, such as adolescence, sexuality, and so on; and they are the main subject matter of the story – the fantasy (which, of course, is there: no-one but a fool would think I meant there is no fantasy in the books at all) is there to support and embody them, not for its own sake.

Dæmons, for example, might otherwise be only a meaningless decoration, adding nothing to the story: but I use them to embody and picture some truths about human personality which I couldn't picture so easily without them. I'm trying to write a book about what it means to be human, to grow up, to suffer and learn. My quarrel with much (not all) fantasy is it has this marvelous toolbox and does nothing with it except construct shoot-em-up games. Why shouldn't a work of fantasy be as truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being as the work of George Eliot or Jane Austen?".

Personally I classify the book as fantasy!

Moshe Reuveni said...

Well, I'm with you on this debate. If Pullman's arguments were to be followed, then we will have no such genre as "science fiction", because all good science fiction (ala Asimov) is realistic and is meant to use the futuristic elements to make a realistic point.
The way I look at it, the argument is between good fantasy and bad fantasy. It's the bad fantasy that I was hooked on as a teenager which I am trying to avoid, and it's the good fantasy ala Golden Compass that I am looking for.

As for the English vs. American debate, I couldn't care less how the Harry Potter book is called; I do care when some sensitive soul decides what is better for me to avoid. Especially when the arguments for doing so are rater ludicrous.

Finally, places like Kmart and Big W are the places to get books cheap; their problem is that their inventories tend to be full of crap. I have bought all my English speaking Harry Potters there.

Moshe Reuveni said...

For the record, when you said Pullman doesn't consider his book to be fantasy I was thinking more along the lines of him thinking that because parallel universes exist, then it is very likely the events in his book actually took place somewhere. The theory is mentioned in the book itself. Then again, no one knows about them parallel worlds.

Uri said...

I'll hold my comments until you read the two other books.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You may need to wait a while...

Moshe Reuveni said...

Uri, while you wait I'll leave you with this: The biggest problem I've had with Golden Compass so far is having one of its central characters called after someone from the Snooker movie.

Uri said...

just wait until Gabriel shows up.

Moshe Reuveni said...

It should be Gedaliah, not Gabriel, and that's from Charlie + 0.5 and not Snooker.
Or are you hinting that Azriel is going to have a twin brother called Gabriel in one of the sequels? Are you suggesting Pullman was as heavily influenced by Snooker when writing His Dark Materials as I suspect he was?
Only time will tell!