His Dark Materials Part 1: The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman, Yearling, 1995
The Golden Compass is a wonderful and magical adventure along the "special child triumphs against evil forces" theme. It centers around the tough yet perceptive Lyra Belacqua, whom we eventually learn is destined for very important things. As children, including her best friend, begin disappearing under mysterious circumstances, she is drawn into a perilous mission to save them and, unbeknownst to her, save the world as well.
Lyra is a very appealing protagonist- she is scrappy, smart, inventive, intuitive, and at once vulnerable and brave. She, like all other humans in the story, have "daemons" - spiritually connected companions that are, in fact, the external manifestation of one's soul in the shape of an animal. The daemons frequently change their animal forms according to mood or emotion until a child reaches puberty, at which time they settle into one form. I was especially drawn to this concept: throughout the story, humans' daemons serve many functions, such as expressing inner emotions, acting as protectors, and serving as confidants, comforters, and soulmates to their humans. The human/daemon relationship is intimate, and interdependent. It is so intimate, it is taboo for a human to touch someone else's daemon, but daemons are able to touch or fight with each other. Pullman very effectively evokes the reader's great compassion for the children and the significance of their daemons, and so when an evil plot is unveiled, the emotional violence of it is palpable.
In addition to an exciting and satisfying plotline, this book has so many appealing elements- mysterious tunnels under Jordan college, Lyra's home; the sleek, seductively wicked Mrs. Coulter; adventure to extreme climates; witch allies, a devoted, fiercely loyal polar bear friend; dramatic battles of good and evil; and a magical, mystical device called an alethiometer that only Lyra can read. In addition, Pullman introduces some interesting philosophical concepts, such as the nature of free will, the concept of original sin, and church doctrine. My only complaint was that so much explaining was left until the end, so the reader is required to be little patient with some references (such as frequent and obscure discussion around "Dust") throughout the story. But so it is for our main character as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to those who love otherworldly adventure stories such as The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (though my understanding is that their authors express very opposite theologies), the Harry Potter series, and, from what I remember from my childhood reading of it, perhaps A Wrinkle In Time. I would suggest by way of parental guidance that the book is definitely more appropriate for slightly more mature child readers, with violent imagery somewhere along the lines of the later Harry Potter books.
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