I was going to write how Pullman doesn’t fall to the bad tropes of Epic Fantasy. There are no pages dedicated solely to what food is being served. There are no hundred details that can only be useful in a crossword puzzle. Not everything is being described, only what is needed to set the mood. Saying something is not as bad as terrible crap though, is not much of a compliment.
Reading this again, there was a scene that nailed down what Pullman does best. Two side characters are having a debate, and Pullman makes both of them sound right. He managed to display two opposing views without degenerating one to a straw man, and they weren’t discussing just whether to bake the potatoes or make french fries. This extends to how, no matter how strange things get, nothing is portrayed as “That other, strange thing”.
It’s easy enough to see how the gyptians turn from these funny people into a culture as rich and interesting as the scholars of Oxford. While the bears do remain a bit undeveloped (He passes it off as ‘enigmatic’, but I’m not sure it cuts it), they are still displayed as serious sentient beings, not just slightly smarter animals. The best is when he portays his adult characters. Although they are seen as scary, alien and not having a single clue by Main Character, Pullman writes enough scenes to show us their point of view. The most telling one is at the end, where two important characters who are seen as pretty awful are given a scene to show them as more than two megalomaniacs. It’s a scene that tells us that just like children, they have their own ambitions, fears and passions. Mrs. Coulter is still the bad guy, but Pullman showed me it’s just a part of her character, not her whole.
His treatment of violence is also, by far, one of the more mature ones. Violence is not seen as sensational, and it’s ‘shocking’ not for how cool it is but how devastating it is. There are various descriptions of wounds and gore, and they always read like nasty stuff, even if the bad guy is wounded. There’s a very bloody character death that in any other book, we’d be encouraged to be happy about. The good guy won! The bad guy is getting dismembered! Only there is no joy in the ritual of plucking a heart and eating it. The frank and blunt description makes it sound ugly and sad, not glorious.
I wish this maturity also made it to the plot structure. Although it’s devoid of bullshit, the plot consists of Lyra moving from one place to another, with NPC’s telling her where to go to next, or offering her a ride to the next act. She’s given a little more to do than the protagonist in Diablo II, and she occasionally makes her own choices, but all she tends to do is keep moving.
It’s a shame because Pullman had a pretty good character in Lyra. Any criticism of her that she’s not a very unpleasant person misses the point. She’s supposed to be flawed. Children are flawed, and can be pricks. Her character shows, if anything, how well Pullman understands children. They get into stupid rivalries for the sake of it. They exaggerate already scary stories just to spook each other. Some things hold their curiousity and make them obsessed. Other things bore them to death. They view adults both as people to admire and people to fear, and they view some people as just ‘wicked’.
Most of the character moments though are in the beginning, where there’s less of getting to the Final Stage, and more of just exploring and doing side quests. There’s also a prophecy thing that doesn’t contribute anything whatsoever to the story. Lyra’s specialness of learning to read the aleithometer is good enough to make others take her seriously. It’s not like a skill Pullman landed on her, either. I kept forgetting about this prophecy thing, because Lyra kept making choices and doing things out of her own volition. Maybe it makes sense in the next books. In this one, though, it’s an attempt to give a motive to a character who already has one.
The Golden Compass avoids most of the cliches everyone hates about fantasy, and is more mature than not just children’s literature, but than a lot of adult literature. Children will enjoy its weird characters and busy journey, but there’s more to it, even if a good chunk is some unrealized potential due to a dull structure. I read this again becaue I put off reading the last one for too long, and it was even better the second time around.
3 Armored Bears out of 5
Also posted in my blog