Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials – Book One

The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials – Book One

Philip Pullman
Fiction  Series
For ages 12 and up
Random House, 2003   ISBN: 978-0440238133

Lyra lives in one of the Oxford colleges, which is a rather unusual thing for a young girl to do but she is used to it. She has lessons, spends time with friends, and she keeps a close eye on what is going on around her. Lyra is naturally very curious and she does not like it when secrets are kept from her.

One of the secret places in the college is the Retiring Room. Lyra knows that if she gets caught going into the Retiring Room she will be very severely punished, but she doesn't care. She wants to know what goes on in there and the only way she will know is if she does a little spying, and so one day she sneaks in and hides in a cupboard. What Lyra experiences during her time in that room changes her whole life. She sees the Master of Jordan College apparently attempt to poison Lord Asriel, who is a famous explorer and her uncle. Lyra is able to save her uncle just in time and in return he does not tell the Master about her hiding place.  Then she hears Lord Asriel giving a presentation in which he talks about Dust, a mysterious substance that no seems to really understand. Lyra is not sure what is going on, but something mysterious is definitely brewing.

Then children in Oxford start to disappear. Everyone is sure that the disappearances are the work of the "Gobblers," who have been kidnapping children from all over England. When Roger, one of Lyra's own dear friends is taken, and then the son of one of the gyptians disappears, she gets really angry. Something has to be done. Why isn't someone doing something to stop these Gobblers?

Before Lyra has the chance to look for her friend she is taken away from Jordan College by a woman called Mrs. Coulter. At first Lyra is fascinated by the lovely lady, but she soon begins to feel uneasy about her. Furthermore Lyra's daemon Pan does not trust Mrs. Coulter, which counts for a lot in Lyra's opinion. Before Lyra leaves the college, the Master gives her an Alethiometer, a device which looks very much like a compass. Lyra does not know how to use it at first but she is drawn to it. The Master tells her that she must not give the device to anyone, especially Mrs. Coulter.

During one of Mrs. Coulter's many parties, Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter is in fact part of the Gobbler organization. She is helping to abduct children and is having them taken North to a place where some kind of experiment is being conducted on them. There is only one thing Lyra can do; she and Pan run away.

Thankfully they are found and taken in by the gyptians, who have lost many children to the Gobblers. It is decided that a group of gyptians will be sent north to retrieve the stolen children and Lyra will go with them. With every passing day she gets better and better at using the Alethiometer, and it is hoped that her skill using the device will be an asset on such a dangerous journey.

As they get close to their destination, the travelers form alliances with a clan of witches and with one lone great white bear, whom Lyra frees from bondage. They then find one of the kidnapped children and they discover what is being done to them in their place of captivity - they are being severed from their daemons. What they discover is so cruel and so terrible that the rescuers race on, hoping they are not too late. Why would anyone would want to do such a thing to a child, and how is the Gobbler experiment related to the mysterious Dust?

In this unique fantasy tale Philip Pullman takes his readers to a world that is like our own in some ways until he startles us by throwing in something that is so alien and new that we have to find a new way of thinking to understand it. For example, there is the way in which all humans share a special bond with their daemons, their familiars. It is a fascinating relationship to read about and to consider. Then there is the Dust, a substance which both fascinates and terrifies people.

As in the real world, Lyra makes mistakes, some of which are very costly and which she deeply regrets. She grieves, learns, and evolves, and she does her best to do better next time. She is, in short, very human and very easy to identify with. Readers will be left wanting to know what is going to happen next. Where is Lyra going to end up?