His Dark Materials is a series of books which, unbelievably so, work for me. The story’s progress is extremely dodgy, the themes are so hard that they kind of explode out of itself, and by the start of the third book, you are wondering what the hell it is you’re reading, and how this is going to reach a satisfying conclusion. It’s unbelievable. I don’t really get it myself either.
The first book, the Golden Compass, follows the character of Lyra Belacqua, a young girl living in a world not quite unlike our own, where people have daemons instead of… well, hard to tell, really. Daemons take on the forms of all sort of animals in childs and then settle to one form in adolescence (and afterwards). Lyra is living at Oxford, a prestigious university, when she witnesses the Master of Jordan trying to poison her Uncle, Lord Asriel, a mighty man with incredible plans up north.
The central question the series revolves around, has something to do with the nature of Dust (with capital D), a grouping of particles that settle around adults, but not children. Lyra’s plot is a little less philosophical in its nature: she is looking for her friend Roger (a kitchen boy at Jordan), who has been kidnapped by an organisation called “The Gobblers” – along with dozens of others.
The first part is the clearest in the series: we follow Lyra as she heads up north looking for Roger, and that’s pretty much it. When I first read the book, I wasn’t really impressed by it – up till the last chapter, which sets up the second (and third) book. It’s a typical epic story, with a lot of travel involved.
What did drag me in, however, was the world it played in. Sure, I’ve seen worlds that are almost like ours (apocalypse, alternate universes), but never one like this: it’s all there, but it’s all slightly different. Due to its similar nature to ours, you really get the impression that this world can exist. Except for the talking bears. That’s still just weird.
I’m still impressed that such a great book got turned into such a messy movie. On the other hand, I’m still impressed that such a great book could be so messy. The Golden Compass is still okay, though. It delivers a solid story with a batch of nicely developed characters. It’s also really exciting, and delivers a nice twist at the end. Give it a try, you might be as sold as I am.