Book Review: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Posted February 9, 2021 by Amber in Reviews / 2 Comments

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass

by Philip Pullman

Series: His Dark Materials #1
Publisher: Scholastic on July 1, 1995
Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk
Target Age Group: Middle Grade, Young Adult
Representation: BIPOC Character(s)
Content Warnings: Death, Gore, Kidnapping

Rating: ★★★★★

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A war is brewing in Lyra's world--a battle between those who would keep people in ignorance and those who are willing to fight for true freedom. Lyra is thrust into the middle of the conflict when her uncle Asriel comes to Oxford, fomenting rebellion, and when her best friend, Roger, suddenly disappears.

Lyra learns that Roger was kidnapped by a shadowy organization that steals children and, it is rumored, experiments on them. To find him, she will travel to the cold, far North, where armored bears and witch clans rule . . . and where her uncle Asriel is attempting to build a bridge to a parallel world.

What Lyra doesn't know, mustn't know, is that her actions will have consequences not just in her world, but in all the worlds beyond.

A masterwork of storytelling and suspense, Philip Pullman's award-winning The Golden Compass is the first in the His Dark Materials series, which continues with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.


I have read The Golden Compass so many times, I know its beats as well as I know the rhythm of my own heart.

This book is an old favorite – I’ve listened to the audiobook three times, including once with my husband; my old box set paperback copy has seen better days.  I have distinct memories of reading this book on my lap in high school French and hoping le professeur did not notice (I’m pretty sure she did).  And as I come back to The Golden Compass and His Dark Materials time and time again… it’s still good.

There’s a few different things to look at and admire here, but one that has always struck me is Pullman’s depiction of Lyra.  Unlike more and more books I read these days, I’ve always felt Lyra acted her age and felt very much a child.  She’s brimming with curiosity, often fails to think her actions through to their consequences, and responds… purely, I guess, to the things around her.  I can’t say Pullman has consistently been adept at writing children (La Belle Sauvage is not as well done) but Lyra is fantastic.

And she’s not the only character who shines in this novel.  Mrs. Coulter is certainly a force to be reckoned with, and I’ve always enjoyed the beauty and sadness behind the Serafina Pekkala/Farder Coram relationship.  Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison are also fantastic characters…. particularly as the series goes on (no spoilers here!).

The urgency of the plot momentum and the adventurous storyline are also gripping and wonderful.  I’m always struck by a story that moves into cold climates, because it’s as though nature itself becomes a minor villain due to the extreme weather.  Even though I’ve read it so many times, The Golden Compass never feels tired or predictable.  I know what’s going to happen overall from experience, but I completely enjoy the journey.  If you haven’t read it before, I don’t think it’s predictable at all.  I love the alethiometer.  I love the twists.  I really love the daemons.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to enjoy the fantasy philosophy and the conversation about Dust and other worlds as well.

While I can’t necessary put Pullman on a “best authors” list (he’s made some poor Twitter decisions, and his depiction of the “gyptians” is very stereotypical, although they are characters to be respected), it would be foolish to deny the brilliance of this trilogy.  His Dark Materials, and The Golden Compass are filled with memorable characters, adventure, meaningful conversation, and wonder.

Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★★★★
Plot: ★★★★★
Characters: ★★★★★
Writing: ★★★★★
Pacing: ★★★★★
Narrator: ★★★★★
Personal Enjoyment: ★★★★★

5 Star Rating



Lyra travels north to rescue her friend – how far would you go to rescue your friends?  Would you seek the help of the authorities or strike out on your own?  Share you rescue plans in the comments!

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2 responses to “The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

  1. It’s been a while since I read these books, though I always sort of mean to reread them eventually. I did like them the first time I read them, and I think I would find more things to notice on a second reading. And I agree Lyra does often seem like an actual child, which is great!

    • Amber

      I love the way he wrote Lyra. 🙂 I think it’s hear energy and growth that ties the books together so beautifully. 🙂 I recommend a reread – they’re a pretty easy read, and very nostalgic. 🙂