Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Point; Classic Ed edition (5 Mar 2007)
A recent reread, this is the novel also known as The Golden Compass, which I am going to defend as the title more consistent with the other two volumes - in all three, a rare or unique artifact is a major part of the story.
This is the story that introduces us to Lyra, an orphan cared for by the scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. Those of you who know Oxford well will know that there is no such college in our world, and indeed, this is set in another world, one where everyone has a daemon - an inseparable animal companion that, for children, may change shape, but that during adolescence settles into one form, never thereafter to change. This is a marvellous concept, and it really does work in depth, with rereading bringing out extra consequences that the reader won't have noticed the first time around.
There is also a constant strangeness introduced by the use of unfamiliar terms for relatively common ideas. Pullman is very good at not letting you forget that it isn't this world that we're in.
The story itself is not too dissimilar to what came through in the film, though the sequence was somewhat changed. Lyra is whisked away by the mysterious dark-haired Mrs Coulter, and then has to flee. She falls in with Water Gypsies and flying Witches among others, before arriving in the frozen wastes of Svalbard (the archipelago that contains Spitzbergen, by the way, roughly half way between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole itself). The world building is rich, but the character drawing is also good. Lyra is not a model child - she's an inveterate liar - but she does have courage and loyalty and those, in the end, come through. There's tragedy here, too - not everyone survives, not even if they're innocent.
Too damned good just for kids.