The Not-So-Golden Compass

Earlier this month I asked readers what I should do to fill my post-Harry Potter void. I didn’t anticipate just how full of reading suggestions blog readers would be — 270 comments.

Of the hundreds of books mentioned, I had to start somewhere, so I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

I can’t really say that I liked it. I had a hard time identifying with the hero, Lyra. I couldn’t really picture her in my mind, for starters. (Which got me thinking that maybe it helped me to like the Potter books because I had seen some of the movies first, and thus knew what the characters were supposed to look like.)

I found the whole discussion of “Dust” to be boring. Things happened too fast and too unrealistically in the book: somehow she can all of the sudden read some impossibly difficult instrument; she’s in trouble and then some lady appears out of nowhere who had been her wet nurse 13 years earlier and saves her not realizing who it is.

The only part I really liked was what she did to the undeserving bear king.

I bought the trilogy, but given my lack of imagination, maybe I better see the movie first before trying the second installment.


Problems visualizing? Try reading some comics or manga. Try Naruto.

The Harry Potter series has quite a bit of humor so it such a joy to read. You won't find that in the Golden Compass, which I did read.


You know how the first three Harry Potter books are more kid-oriented and thus slightly more boring for adults to read? Well, think of the first His Dark Materials book - The Golden Compass - as the first three Harry Potter books. If you read the other two I think you will be in for a pleasant surprise.

Definitely DON'T see the movie, though. It was not very good and did not capture the book's spirit at all. If you need inspiration for picturing Lyra in your head, just look at the book's cover. Worked for me...


Don't read the books OR see the movie--listen to the Pullman trilogy on audio. I read the first book, and didn't engage, then borrowed The Golden Compass audio book and was completely charmed. The recording uses a full cast, and the books really come alive.


Here is the Catholic League's link on Pullman:

Jason Goodman

"The Golden Compass is all about constructing a world whose material details are different from our own..., but whose fundamental truths about human nature ... are supposed to resonate with our everyday experience."

The same can be said for *any* serious science fiction or fantasy novel. That's pretty much the definition of the genre. The Potter books do this too: at some points they become political allegories, but Rowling always keeps her eye on the plotline.

But just because your SF/fantasy book resonates with everyday experience doesn't make it *good*.

People posting here make a good point, that Pullman often uses the books as a vehicle for theological debate to the detriment of the story. In that respect, he's a bit like C.S. Lewis (I'm thinking especially of Lewis's sci-fi allegories "Out of the Silent Planet" etc.). The two authors have little in common theologically, but both lose track of their story in their pursuit of rhetoric.



i hated the first one but made myself read the other two...and L-O-V-E-D them. keep going!

Princess Leia

Julia liked reading GC, but I didn't allow her to see the movie bc it sounded too violent. Supposedly not so good anyway. She stopped mid-way through the second book--too anti-church for her.

Jim Berk

The audio book is excellent -- I think better than reading the book.

The acting is excellent and really makes the book come alive.

Especially the acting for Lyra -- the actress is exceptional.

David McKay

I really liked both the Harry Potter series and the Pullman series, though for different reasons. Rowling's books are about characters - Potter himself, his friends and enemies, and even the world they live in are all presented as fully-fleshed out characters that you want to get to know. Pullman's books are about ideas - he's exploring a lot of issues through the lives of his characters, and if you like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing you'll like.

Any idea-driven book runs the risk of getting overbearing, which Pullman does from time to time with the atheism angle (I'm vaguely religious myself, but atheism doesn't offend me particularly). But most of the time he keeps it under control, exploring all sorts of fascinating angles of things, and I found the series in total to be worth reading - it fleshes out nicely as you go along, and the end is very resonant.

Of course, I read a lot of SF/F books, so I'm already mostly on board to begin with.

I heartily agree with the commenters who said not to bother with the movie, though. It had a very "paint-by-numbers" feel to it, as if the director made a list of all of the relevant plot points that had to be hit and then just moved through them mechanically. Plus it stops before the book stops, which was annoying.



When reading The Golden Compass I remember thinking that Nicole Kidman would be absolutely perfect for the part of Mrs Coulter. And lo! She magically appeared. Daniel Craig was pretty close to my mental picture of Lord whatsisname. Even Ian McKellen sounded like the bear in my head. Wow maybe I should consider a career change... But, on the other hand, the daemons were not quite what I imagined.

As for liking the books, I tore through the first two but made the mistake of reading reviews of the third while waiting for it to come out in paperback. That was a bad thing to do, since vol. 3 was generally panned by the critics. I'll give it another "go" someday.



For a laugh, read Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones. It's not quite the same story, but there are some funny coincidences:

- the protagonists lose their parents
- one seems to be extra-talented at magic, the other has no talent
- both receive portentous fortunes
- they ride a train to a castle where an extremely powerful wizard has adopted them
- two thirds of the way through, someone starts insisting that they not call the wizard by his name, but instead call him, what else, You Know Who. Capital letters and all.

My wife said it sounded a lot like Harry Potter. Of course, it was written in 1977.

It starts a little slowly, but it gets much better, and the sequel is even better.


I totally agree with your assessment. I saw the movie, enjoyed it and thought gee the books should be even better. First book seemed a bit dark for the average tween reader.

About your comment about seeing the movie...I have and will probably never see the Lord of the Ring movies because once I see Jackson's take of the characters they will always be there in my head and I prefer to think of Tolkien's characters in my own way. Isn't it the author's goal to paint that picture for you?


If you have a hard time conjuring images while reading, maybe you should look into reading some comics. Despite their childish connotation there are a lot of comics out there that are amazing stories, check out Bone ( and Amulet ( for starters.

They are both truly amazing stories.


Try A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket. It's a clever, gothic children's series of 13 novels of 13 chapters each, with a mystery running through the series. The first few are a bit formulaic, but once you get into the mystery, it's quite fun.


I didn't "The Golden Compass" either. I thought the pacing was terrible - all the action happened too fast, yet the overall plot took too long to make headway. I didn't think the writing was all that good, and I didn't like any of the characters.


I agree with a previous poster - the Naomi Novik series is wonderful - the 5th book is due out this summer and the first 4 were great. Both my husband and I really enjoyed them and we have fairly different taste in books.


Save your time on the movie -- it sucked. I took my son to see it (he's a HUGE movie buff), and he wanted to leave after 20 minutes. I told him to give the movie a chance -- that it might get better. It didn't.

Some family friends had heard about the popularity of the series and tried to read the book. They both abandoned it mid-way through -- out of boredom.


You've got to check out Charlie Rose's interview with Philip Pullman:
He explains the underlying theme of the book which made reading the books so much more enjoyable and intellectually stimulating.


I'm curious: Have you read Milton? Or Blake? Or the Bible? I loved the His Dark Materials trilogy, but I suspect that it helps to have read the chapter in Paradise Lost from which that title was taken.

Not all books are for everyone. I happen to think that Pullman's writing is far superior to the Rowlings', but I recognize that his appeal is probably limited to a smaller audience. Then again, so is Milton's.

Dan Lewis

You should also read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It won both the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award. It is Jane Austen in Faerie-land, Gandalf in the Napoleonic Wars, and Amadeus with magic spells. Don't miss it.