His Dark Materials, volume 1
Rating - 4: worth reading multiple times (buy it)
The Golden Compass starts slowly, but you can tell from the first page that it will be worth reading. (This is not one of my better-written reviews, so just go read the book.)
Lyra is an eleven-year-old orphan at Jordan College, Oxford. When the Gobblers kidnap her friend, she sets out to find him, first with the enchanting Mrs. Coulter and then with the boat people who have lost so many children to the Gobblers. They head north, in a journey that will include armored polar bears, witches, balloon-based attacks, a truth-telling compass, Lyra's absent parents, and research into the origin of Dust and how it relates to daemons, humans' souls incarnate as lifelong animal companions.
Events move very quickly, sometimes jarringly. Several action scenes will happen back-to-back-to-back without pausing to think. We find ourselves headed towards the next significant event before we can ask if our path was anything better than "it seemed like a good idea at the time." This is what happens when you let eleven-year-olds determine the plot direction.
The book has the usual exposition, but arranged to fit the spaces between those events. We pause to discuss some major point of the world's history or theology, then we are off again. I said the book starts slowly, with such a discussion, and entirely the wrong one in terms of the standard formula of plot exposition.
Wrong is good here. We do not start with an explanation of our main character; she is assumed, and we learn through her impetuous actions. We are thrown into the middle of a world before we get to much of the story, and the backstory catches up along the way. It is a good reworking of how to tell a tale.
The book does so well in terms of violating expectations that it is disappointing when it meets them. About 1/3 and 1/2 way through, we start getting the standard things like learning about the orphan's parents and her destiny. Standard tools become somewhat surprising when you have been using something else, so it is both unexpected and entirely predictable. I should have expected that when we started with the standard orphan.
Lyra is not contemplative. She is described as unimaginative, someone who prone to do and not think. Hence our headlong run into action, and her incurious nature that leaves much of the world faintly sketched. Lyra serves as our cabbagehead so some other character can explain the world to we the readers, but she is more interest in getting to the next thing. Late in the book, someone asks her why she is making a cross-continental journey. Huh, she never thought about that one.
Lyra is a great liar. This is one of the few books marketed for a young audience that shows how you can achieve your goals by lying shamelessly and convincingly. Lyra is an untamed animal, using words to overcome superior forces the way a squirrel might jump and scamper from a large dog. Only here the squirrel ends up riding the dog.
Daemons are the interesting conceit of the book. Each human carries his or her soul around, and the soul takes the form of an animal. An adult's daemon has a fixed form that exemplifies his character, while a child's remains unfixed and changing to fit her mood. I will leave it at that, rather than spoil some points.
So we have our epic tale, led by an adventurous child and punctuated by speeches from scholarly adults. Characters are drawn with bold lines and clear natures, aided by the daemons that embody them. We have grand scenes of battle, hope, and betrayal. Don't play it small. I have not yet seen the film, but many of the scenes should translate very well.
I have already mentioned my primary critique, that the story moves without much pondering. Lyra's utter lack of introspection is alien to me, but maybe that is just me. It still works. The standard elements are still there, very standard in most cases. I feel the need to say it, so I am switching to white text for the spoilers: of course he is her father; of course she is her mother; of course she is the destined one; of course he is a prince; and so on. Oh, and don't have two polar bears named Io* *nison, no matter what good etymological reasons you have.
My other critique is that the ending is weak. It is telegraphed in a way that goes well beyond foreshadowing. It culminates oddly, especially after a strong climax at the end of a subplot, and concludes on a note of painful illogic. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence, and the same applies to evil. Evil people also believe that being mauled by a bear is a bad thing; this does not make bear maulings good. That ending already had the perfect setup, so it did not need the flawed justification.
Have I said enough about why this is a great book? It compares favorably to The Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and other starts to epic tales of adventure. It does so by using, violating, and misusing the standard storytelling elements in a way that builds a compelling and coherent story, even for a reader with an entirely different internal life from the protagonist. It mixes action with grand ideas. Not least of all, it is original and well written.
The original title was "Northern Lights." The North American title differed, because of the same editor who changed Harry Potter. Should we all agree to use the original title? It does match up with the other Dark Materials titles better. Or maybe that is just me again.
If you are worried about anti-religious elements, don't be. This book has nothing to concern you. The later books in the series reportedly do, in spades.
His Dark Materials: