Twelve-year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua lives at Oxford University's Jordan College, where she has managed to avoid being educated by the scholars who look after her and runs wild. In this parallel world to ours, everyone has a daemon attached to them always-a sort of alter ego in animal form. Lyra's daemon is Pantalaimon who can transform himself at will into an ermine, a mouse, or even a moth. When Lyra and Pantalaimon thwart a murder attempt on her uncle, Lord Asriel, by one of the scholars at Oxford, she is drawn into a spiral of danger. She seeks to find out why children, including her best friend, Roger, a boy who works in the kitchen, are being kidnapped by Gobblers all over England. The glamorous and seductively dangerous Mrs. Coulter befriends Lyra and accompanies her to the far north where Lyra hopes to discover more about the phenomena called Dust that appears near the Northern Lights and may be part of another parallel world.
Stalwart teachers will claim this tumultuous fantasy for a novel study, filled as it is with wonderful technological (though fictional) inventions and scientific wonders in an alternate England. Readers will love comparing and contrasting the differences between Lyra's world with that of late nineteenth century England. The most important tool for the resourceful Lyra is the aleithometer, a complex golden compass that only she can operate and use to tell the future. There's an armored polar bear, heinous experiments performed on kidnapped kids to amputate their daemons, witches, and almost 400 pages of electrifying adventure. It's filled with gorgeous writing, too, the first in Pullman's brilliant, challenging, and controversial "His Dark Materials" trilogy, followed by the more complex The Subtle Knife, and ending with The Amber Spyglass. Reviews were mixed on the movie version that came out in 2007, though it won an Oscar for special effects. It's always interesting to compare a book with the movie version.
Reviewed by JF.
THEMES: ENGLAND. BEARS. FANTASY. WITCHES.
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1996
Suggested Ages: 11 and Up