Philip Pullman,
The Golden Compass
(Knopf, 1999)

Lyra Belacqua, the wild and brave heroine of The Golden Compass, lives in an alternate universe very like ours. In Lyra's London, some forms of magic are possible and everyone has a spirit daemon, an animal companion tied to one's soul. This daemon can change shape during its human companion's childhood before settling into a permanent shape during adulthood.

Lyra has the run of Jordan College at Oxford, and one night, she eavesdrops on a meeting with her uncle, Lord Asriel and the Master and the Scholars of the College. From her hiding place she hears about Lord Asirel's expedition north, about something called Dust, and a chilling reference to a "severed child."

What Lyra doesn't know is that her life is now changed irrevocably. First, children are reported missing, among them her friend, Roger. Next, Lyra is sent to live with Mrs. Coulter, a visitor to the College. At first, Lyra is happy but then she begins to have her doubts about Mrs. Coulter's intentions. She runs away, taking with her a gift from the Master of the College, an alethiometer, an object that can tell the truth.

This is just the first step in a long journey that will take her to the top of the world. Along the way, she encounters a number of fascinating people, including Lee Scoresby, an American aeronaut; the witch Serafina Pekkala; and Iorek Byrnison, one of the panserbjorn, a tribe of bears. In the end, Lyra discovers the truth about both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, and she embarks on the next stage of her adventure.

The Golden Compass is the first volume in the His Dark Materials trilogy which, on publication, quickly established itself as a modern classic. Darker than many children's books, the complex plot is at once thoughtful and exciting, appealing to both adults and children. Pullman's respect for his readers is evident throughout the book. He never condescends to younger readers, and his story unfolds uncompromisingly. The ideas he explores are fascinating, particularly the daemons, without overwhelming the thread of the plot. You close the book eager for more. Fortunately, The Subtle Knife, the second volume, is also avilable, and the third, The Amber Spyglass, will be out in late 2000. (Note to self: Ask editor for a raise.) [Editor's note: Don't count on it.]

This is the perfect book to share with your favorite young reader, but the lack of one shouldn't stop you from enjoying it yourself.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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