Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

(Book Review)

Perhaps your wondering if it's just a coincidence that I'm reviewing this book at around the same time the movie is getting released. And of course it's not. I've not seen the movie yet (it's getting a delayed release in Japan (as often happens)) but I will admit to being influenced by the advanced marketing campaign. And much as I hate to admit my reading choices are influenced by Hollywood advertising, I'm only human. The bookstores in Fukuoka are already stocked with multiple copies of this book, complete with the movie poster tie-in covers.

I was in Fukuoka last week for the Japanese proficiency test, browsing through the bookstore and feeling guilty because I hadn't read this book yet, and all the advertising was making me feel like this was a great fantasy epic I was missing out on. And yet at the same time I wondered if I really wanted to spend so much time working through a children's book series when there were so many other books on my reading list.

So before I plopped down the money, I decided to ask around first. I asked some friends if they had read the series and if they thought it was any good. "Actually I've got the whole series on audio book," one friend said. "I'll loan it to you."
Problem solved! Hurray for audio books.

Although this is my first time reading Philip Pullman, he has briefly entered this blog before via a useless wikipedia fact and Phil's helpful comments following up. I'm a bit out of what the media has been like back home (as always) but I assume with all the usual press surrounding the release of the movie, Pullman's views about religion are probably common knowledge now.

One of the reasons I was curious to read these books was to see how well Pullman managed to integrate his philosophical themes into a children's book. And unfortunately the answer is not well. But of course this is only the first book in a 3 part series, so I suppose I should reserve judgement.

This book is vaguely anti-Christian in the same way that the Narnia series is vaguely pro-Christian. While reading it you can definitely get a sense of where the author's sympathies lie, but there's no heavy philosophical lifting that would be necessary to win converts to the cause.

Instead the book rests on cliches of creepy priest type characters and cold strict nun type characters. The book takes place in an alternate universe where the reformation never took place and the Catholic church has run amok. An interesting concept for a story, but from a philosophic standpoint the Catholic church, especially the historic Catholic church pre-reformation, is just too easy of a target. Even Christians write stories that vilify the old Catholic church.
Near the end of the book there 's an alternative version of Adam and Eve and some discussion about original sin, which is also adds to the interest of the story, but is only a hypothetical.

But like I said, I'm going to have to reserve judgement until I find out what happens in the next couple books. (I got the whole series on audio book now so stay tuned for further reviews as I continue through).

As for the story itself, the book starts out with many cliched elements from children's literature: an orphaned child who, as the story progresses, finds out everything she had been taught about her parents wasn't true, and finds out who her parents really were and what happened to them. Also there is a prophecy concerning her that the other characters talk about.
All of this is of course similar to the "Harry Potter" series, not to mention numerous other children's stories. But the wonderful thing about this book is it takes the cliched beginnings and then adds elements of pure imagination to them.

But once the story gets going, it creates a wonderfully imaginative world with boat people, a polar bear kingdom in the North, warring witch clans, and animal spirit companions (all of which you're probably aware of by now if you've seen the movie previews I guess). Near the end of the book there's lots of talk about multiple Universes, and I hope this will be explored in the further books.
And wow, what an ending! Something that really makes you want to continue reading the next book.

The characters, even the villains, have a rich complexity unusual for children's books. (Compare with say "Harry Potter" in which Voldermort and the rest of the death eaters are just evil for the sake of evil).

The tone of the books is a bit darker than many other children's books. And there are some violent scenes as well. The most graphic being when another character gets his lower jaw torn off. (I know I say this all the time, but standards for children's books really seem to have changed since I was young).

In short, I'm pretty hooked on these books and am eager to keep plunging into the series to see how it turns out.

Link of the Day
Junk Media Makes Us Sick


Whisky Prajer said...

Interesting: with all the evangelical buzz (from believers and non alike) I was becoming increasingly less interested in this series. Someone else described the daemon concept to me, though, and I thought it might be worth a go -- on audiobook (really, the only way I could experience Harry Potter). Who's the reader for this series?

ジョエル said...

The version I have is read by the author himself, with some other voice actors for the characters. It's pretty well done actually