The Golden Compass is undoubtedly an exciting, complex, and subtle work of literature. Its strengths lie in Pullman’s incredible imagination and his obvious love of science. Alternate universes are cool on their own, but they became even more fascinating once one learns more about the scientific theories that inspired Pullman’s world-building. And he was genius enough to make a book that is in many ways strong science fiction read like almost pure fantasy.

The plot is another huge draw. Pullman knows how to bring readers on a wild ride, convincing them they have a good idea of what is happening, and then pulling everything out from under them. He hints just enough that readers can see some of the clues in retrospect, but even then one cannot claim it was “obvious” the entire time. These are true mind-blowing twists.

Unfortunately, as one of my English professors likes to say, “No one rereads for plot.” Though I have reread this book, once before I saw the movie and once again for the read-along, it simply is not the same. I know what is coming. The surprise is gone. And in a way that leaves the plot a little bare. Of course there are schemes and fights and all the great things that should keep a reader enthralled, but something is missing. I personally think that it is heart.

Bottom line: These books are anti-Christian and anti organized religion. That is fine. Yet Pullman needs to find something to stand for in his writing, not just to stand against. There is no true sense of right and wrong here, or of anything worth fighting for beyond friendship and at times what might qualify as common decency. There may be something said for the pursuit of knowledge and for the pursuit of one’s personal pleasure. Yet personally I cannot connect very strongly with a book which presents mainly two values: loyalty and honor. These are good, of course, but they are not enough.

The Golden Compass ranks strongly in terms of plot and construction. It is well-written, carefully planned, and brilliantly woven together. But I will never be able to call it a favorite book if it fails to do more than bring me on a fun ride.

This review is also posted at Pages Unbound Book Reviews.

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