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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Northern Lights

(The Golden Compass)

Philip Pullman

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Golden Compass

Title: Northern Lights
Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995
Length: 399 pages
Availability: The Golden Compass - US
Northern Lights - UK
The Golden Compass - Canada
Northern Lights - India
Les Royaumes du Nord - France
Der goldene Kompass - Deutschland
La bussola d'oro - Italia
  • UK title: Northern Lights
  • US title: The Golden Compass
  • The American edition comes with an Introduction by Terry Brooks
  • Northern Lights is the first volume of the His Dark Materials - trilogy. See also:
  • The Golden Compass was made into a film in 2007, directed by Chris Weitz and starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Dakota Blue Richards

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Our Assessment:

B+ : everything a bit too simple (and, often, convenient) and many jumps too sudden but still a gripping read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Fantasy & Science Fiction B- 1/1997 Charles de Lint
FAZ . 3/12/1996 Gundel Mattenklott
The NY Rev. of Books . 25/3/2004 Michael Chabon
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 19/5/1996 Jane Langton

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pullman's prose is quite lovely and he's obviously put a lot of consideration into his setting and background, the fascinating history of this alternate world and the various creatures populating it. But with under-realized characters to carry the story, even if he had taken us to the end of the plot, we would still be left with an incomplete book." - Charles de Lint, Fantasy & Science Fiction

  • "Die Elemente sind vertraut, aber Pullman kombiniert sie reizvoll und gibt ihnen überraschende Wendungen und Deutungen. Lakonisch verschmilzt er das Wunderbare mit dem Gewöhnlichen" - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Gundel Mattenklott

  • "The Golden Compass doesn't quite achieve the majestic poetry of Tolkien's powerful sagas, or the sinewy gravity of Ursula K. Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea, or the wit of Russell Hoban's fable The Mouse and His Child. But it is still very grand indeed. There is scene after scene of power and beauty (.....) The Golden Compass is long, but it is told simply and draws us on, as one crisis blossoms out of another." - Jane Langton, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass as it's called in contrary America) is set in "a universe like ours, but different in many ways". It begins in Oxford -- or an Oxford, at least: there are similarities with present-day Oxford, but differences too. The feel is more late-19th century, most of the technology (with a few exceptions) appearing to be of about that time. Details differ too: here it is Jordan College that is "the grandest and richest of all the colleges in Oxford". And history has also unfolded differently: readers soon learn that a "Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva" a while back, for example.
       It is also is a fundamentally different universe in several respects -- most notably in that all humans have daemons, creatures that must and do always remain near them, and which can change form until the humans they are paired with reach puberty, when they settle down in a fixed form. And while human (meaning: human plus daemon) life dominates, witches and talking bears and a few other species also inhabit this universe.
       It is also a different universe in that the Church (which isn't quite "the Church" readers are familiar with, but is basically Christianity, gone just slightly differently awry) plays a more dominant role -- in this the feel is more Inquisition Spain than 19th century England. Jordan College is a scholarly centre -- which in this case means it: "had no rival, either in Europe or in New France, as a center of experimental theology" (though note that 'theology' is a much broader concept here, and clearly includes what we would call 'physics', for example).
       Among the theological disputes of the day -- though apparently not much (or at least openly) disputed -- is one heretical notion that will immediately strike readers as of some significance, given the alternate universe being presented here:

(T)he Holy Church teaches that there are two worlds: the world of everything we can see and hear and touch, and another world, the spiritual world of heaven and hell. Barnard and Stokes were two -- how shall I put it -- renegade theologians who postulated the existence of numerous other worlds, like this one, neither heaven nor hell, but material and sinful. They are there, close by, but invisible and unreachable. The Holy Church naturally disapproved of this abominable heresy, and Barnard and Stokes were silenced.
       The central character in this book is Lyra Belacqua, "a half-wild, half-civilized girl, left among" the Jordan College scholars by chance. The powerful (and generally absent) Lord Asriel is apparently her uncle, and it's a rare visit by him to the college sets things in motion. There are strange goings-on up North: Lyra only picks up stray bits of information, but there's talk about some mysterious Dust and Lord Asriel is involved in some sort of mysterious research and soon heads North to continue it. Lyra wants to go with him, but he won't have it.
       Meanwhile, there are also strange goings-on around Oxford: children are disappearing, taken, rumour has it, by Gobblers, though no one is quite sure what happens to the taken children. Soon enough Lyra learns what is behind it all: taken in by the seductive Mrs. Coulter -- female companionship and guidance now deemed more proper for the slowly maturing girl -- Lyra goes to London but can only briefly enjoy the far more worldly lifestyle there.
       Lyra is a special girl: many people take an interest in her, and try to help her -- and, occasionally, use her. She's apparently destined to play a significant role in future events -- but one of the things that concerns those in the know is that she, for some unexplained reason, must not know what she's destined for. ("She must fulfill this destiny in ignorance of what she is doing, because only in her ignorance can we be saved.") She must be allowed to make her own mistakes if there is to be any hope .....
       Once away from London things get far more adventurous. Everyone is after the child -- huge rewards are posted for finding her -- but she is helped by the gyptians, a Gypsy- (Romany-) like people who have lost some of their children to the Gobblers as well. They plan an expedition to go North as well: that's where the children are, and they mean to save them. Lyra goes with them.
       Lyra carries with her a valuable and rare device, given to her when she left Oxford: an alethiometer (the golden compass of the American title), which, when handled and read properly, can answer questions, including about what lies in store in the future. Usually operators of the device need to study for ages and consult the books that explain the many meanings, but Lyra quickly develops a knack for figuring out how to use it -- a talent that comes in handy (and is added proof that she is a special little girl).
       There are rumours about what the Gobblers do with the kidnapped children, and some of it is horrific stuff: "We hear about children with no heads, or about children cut in half and sewn together, or about things too awful to mention." It turns out to have something to do with the Dust (originally called Rusakov Particles, but renamed for a quite clever reason the much simpler 'Dust'): what exactly that is -- and whether it is good or bad -- is left unclear for most of the novel.
       Significant too is the role of the daemons: they are like souls, an apparently necessary part of every human which can never stray very far from their hosts. (Pullman does a nice job with these creatures, especially Lyra's (named Pantalaimon), and they're among his most inspired inventions here.) But there are some who have some theories about what possibly positive things might happen if the link between human and daemon is severed .....
       Lyra practically stumbles from one adventure to the next up North: she gets repeatedly captured, comes across some of the kidnapped children, learns the various secrets of the mysterious ways of the various people and groups in the North. Among the most engaging parts of the book is her relationship with a disgraced bear, Iorek Byrnison, who with and through her gets an opportunity to set things right again in the bear kingdom (ruled over by a hilariously confused human want-to-be, the bear Iofur Raknison (who goes so far as to carry a daemon-doll around with him since he, like all bears, doesn't have (or need) a real one)).
       Then there's Lord Asriel, long imprisoned but still going about with his own plans (and boy does he have grand ambitions), who Lyra finally reaches -- only to find herself forced into one last pursuit. Things end dramatically, with promise of more to come in the volumes that follow:
     So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.

       Pullman offers a fine series of adventures here, though the jumps from one to the next are often abrupt: there's also a bit too much coincidence and convenience here. Lyra is a fairly well-developed little-heroine -- and though she has some special abilities (and the weight of destiny hanging over her) Pullman manages to avoid making too much of a super-girl out of her. She's described as "a sanguine and practical child" and, interestingly in a book so wildly imagined, Pullman insists: "she wasn't imaginative".
       Lyra has some wild adventures, but as easily settles down into childish ways when opportunity arises (even when she finds herself with the kidnapped children in very unsettling surroundings). Pullman does have her nod off several times too often (drowsiness no doubt naturally overcomes her, but it does so here so often that one imagines Pullman keeps mentioning it only to offer parents who read this to their children as a bedtime tale a convenient out, so that they have an excuse to stop for the evening too).
       Pullman offers an impressive alternate-reality, but it is not very fully realised. Parts are well done -- the too-human bear palace, for one, and the open ocean and the snowy north -- but his narrow focus generally doesn't allow for a sense of the world in its entirety.
       The central characters are quite well done, though both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter remain a bit distant and mysterious (as they admittedly well might appear to Lyra). Several of those who come to Lyra's aid are of interest, though some -- like the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby -- never convince. The one true triumph is the bear Iorek Byrnison, whose entire story -- from how he joins the gyptian crew to his return to the bear kingdom and his efforts to assist Lyra -- is marvelously done.
       There are some gruesome events in the book, but it all makes sense in this struggle between good and evil. As to the reasons for what is happening -- and specifically Lyra's role (and the reasons why she mustn't know what she is ordained for) -- that isn't satisfactorily explained here. Much seems almost entirely arbitrary, and though there are hints of theological, philosophical, and scientific explanations not enough is offered.

       Northern Lights/The Golden Compass is a bit simple, with the good-for-everything alethiometer being the feeblest and most obvious of the devices (literary and otherwise) that Pullman employs to bridge over any complications that might otherwise arise (yet not employing it when it would prove just as useful -- if that means it would not allow the next adventure to unfold). Events move along quickly (with the jumps from one to the next largely entirely too convenient), explanations are largely superficial and serve almost solely to move the action along, and there's little attempt at psychological depth of any sort (Iorek Byrnison and, to a much lesser extent, Lyra being almost the only exceptions). Most of the characters are two-dimensional, and simply black or white -- with Pullman perhaps thinking he has done enough by not making many of them show their true colours immediately, or presenting them as checkered or even grey. Much of the action is too simple too, with many of the battles, captures, and escapes not particularly cleverly done -- but there are also genuinely exciting exceptions (especially the trick Lyra pulls on the bear pretender to the throne, Iofur Raknison).
       Pullman does hold the reader's interest throughout: he creates a vivid enough tableau, with so much going on (and so many questions unanswered) that one readily (and easily) gulps the book down.
       Worthwhile -- as a fun, light read --, but not exceptional.

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Northern Lights / The Golden Compass: Reviews: The Golden Compass - the movie: Philip Pullman: Other books by Philip Pullman under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Philip Pullman was born in 1946. He has written numerous highly acclaimed and prize-winning books, mainly for younger readers.

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