The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I think we all have that One Book … the book that has shaped our lives in so many ways, we can’t even name them all. The book that has stayed with us for years and years; through different times in our lives; through life changes both big and small. For a lot of people in one generation, that book was Harry Potter.

For me, that book is The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

Now, you might have heard of this book – the international best-seller that it is. It’s the first book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, was turned into a (largely disappointing major motion picture), and has even been adapted into a stage play. (Yes, The Golden Compass did it before Harry Potter.) The BBC is even working on a new mini-series adaptation, to which I have pinned many hopes and am quite a bit more optimistic that it will succeed where the film failed.

And now, Pullman is bringing us back to his stunning world with The Book of Dust, a new companion trilogy set both before and after the events of His Dark Materials. In anticipation of this new book — the news of which brought me to literal tears — my friend Lizzy and I decided to do a complete buddy re-read of all three original books. Then Knopf asked if I’d like to (re)read and write a review of The Golden Compass in anticipation of The Book of Dust‘s upcoming release.

My response was a fangirl-strength, enthusiastic YES.

But how do I even go about reviewing a book that has had such an impact on my life? I could tell you about the wonderful characters, the magic and mystery of Lyra’s world, Pullman’s intoxicating and thought-provoking writing, and his ingenious world-building. This book – this trilogy – is EXCELLENT, and the hype exists for a reason. If you have not read these books yet, let the upcoming release of The Book of Dust be the impetus to get started.

However, instead of going on ad nauseum about how great this book is – and it is great – instead, I’d like to tell you a bit about my relationship with The Golden Compass and the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Let’s start with how it all began: Christmas 1995.

It was a rare occasion when my dad actually picked out a gift all by himself. (Usually, my mom was the one who took charge of selecting gifts.) But that year, my dad had wandered into a small, independent bookstore while out seeing a customer, and picked out two books to give to us for Christmas: one for my brother, and one for me.

The book he got me was, as you may have already guessed, The Golden Compass.

I was in 6th grade, and 11-years-old, just like the protagonist, Lyra.

I devoured the book, and when I was done, immediately began re-reading it. And I continued rereading it repeatedly for the next two years, until the second book, The Subtle Knife was released.

I was in 8th grade by that time, and Philip Pullman actually went on tour for this book – and came to my local bookstore. (Shout out to Kepler’s!) I’ve been lucky to meet a LOT of authors over the last 10+ years, and in particular during my time as a blogger, including some pretty big names in publishing. But nothing will ever compare to meeting Philip Pullman.

I remember, at the time I wanted to be a writer. (Maybe, someday?) And I waited until the very end to go meet him and get my books signed, and asked for his advice. I remember the store employees wanting to hurry me along so he could sign stock, and I remember he told them to go away and he’d sign stock while he talked to me. And I remember his advice. I’m paraphrasing here, because it has been 20 years (I am so old!), but what he said was this: “Every story has already been told. Your job, as a writer, is to find a new way to tell it.” And he gave me the example of fairy tales, and told me to consider how many ways Cinderella had been told, and to figure out a new way to tell her story.

Over the next four years, I would continue to reread both The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife repeatedly. I was in high school at this point, with increasingly demanding requirements for school. But when I needed an escape, these were the books I would return to. I embraced Lyra’s world. I embraced her adventure and her journey, and the message of these books. Something about them spoke to me; soothed me. They brought me great comfort. (They still do.)

I was a senior in high school when the third book finally came out. I had waited four years, and I remember the life-changing experience of reading The Amber Spyglass for the first time.  And I’ve never forgotten the lesson I took away from that book; the one thing that has stayed with me for my entire life and has shaped the way I view the world, the way I live my life, and the way I think about religion and life and death and what we do with our time on this earth.

“Tell them stories.”

That to move on in the afterlife, means you have to live this life. You have to live and live well, so that when you are gone, you have stories to tell. True stories.

And that when all this is over, everything that we are will go back into the earth and whatever essence of our being remains, will find the essence of our loved ones, and we’ll be together again as part of this world we live in.

There’s a whole stunning, heartbreaking passage about it at the end of The Amber Spyglass, which I won’t post here (because spoilers) – but it was so meaningful to me, that it was actually the reading at my wedding.

Having just completed a re-read of all three books, I’m more in love than ever with these books. More than 20 years later, and they still speak to a deep part of me. They still bring me comfort and hope and understanding; they help me find meaning in my life and choose how to live it in a way that is purposeful. They still bring me to tears, and they still help me define the way I view the world around me.

The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass are available wherever books are sold. Look for The Book of Dust in stores this October.

Lyra Belacqua is content to run wild among the scholars of Jodan College, with her daemon familiar always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle—a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. And as she hurtles toward danger in the cold far North, Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she alone is destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle.

Philip Pullman’s award-winning The Golden Compass is a masterwork of storytelling and suspense, critically acclaimed and hailed as a modern fantasy classic.


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