Lyra is a wild, under-supervised young girl who’s essentially grown up on the campus of Oxford University’s Jordan College, in an alternate-reality steampunk version of England. She is blissfully ignorant of her world’s politics and “science” until she accidentally overhears her fiercely driven guardian and uncle, Lord Asriel, discussing a phenomenon called “dust.” Lyra’s dearest playmate, Roger, is abducted by a mysterious organization that is thought to experiment on children—and at almost the same time, Lord Asriel is detained for his heretical ideas. This kicks off Lyra’s adventurous journey up North to rescue both of them; along with whispers about Lyra being some sort of prophesied savior who, for some unspecified reason, cannot know of what she’s meant to do.
What I liked:
Pullman’s writing is largely effective, and occasionally affecting. This reader personally enjoyed his word choices and pleasing manner of sentence assembly. Descriptions are vivid, and high action scenes are laid out with marked skill. The pacing was fairly consistent and never lagged enough to dissuade interest.
Most noteworthy, in this reader’s mind, is the novel worldbuilding concept the author presents in the form of the ‘daemon’—an external representation of a human’s soul. The daemon come in animal form—both real and mythical—and can alter their shape on a whim up until a child hits puberty when, for reasons unexplained, the daemon settles on a permanent state. The emotional expressionism and interaction between daemons provided an exceptionally memorable aspect to the storytelling. The naturalness of their existence and the unspoken rule surrounding them (namely that people don’t have any physical contact with another person’s daemon) was enriching to the plot at large.
What Didn’t Work For me:
Speaking as a former barefooted heathen tomboy who ran amuck most of my childhood, I found Lyra flat and unrelatable. Her sense of compassion was fickle at best, and the story seemed to continually highlight her capacity for lying as a featured virtue. Toward the middle of the story I did finally warm up enough to feel pity for her over the utter neglect she’d grown up with as the child of two ravenous sociopaths. Her interactions with the bear caused just enough character development to make her more well-rounded and tolerable. But still, I found I cared more about what happened to several of the side characters than I did our heroine.
Which relates to another characterization and emotional conveyance issue…
Roger, Lyra’s supposed best friend and primary motivation for her perilous adventure, was disappointingly underdeveloped. With no real backstory and only a few handfuls of dialogue at the very beginning and very end, it’s difficult to feel any attachment or concern for him. Lyra herself seems to spend most of her time getting wrapped up in her travels and largely forgetting her friend is in peril.
Though I found the ‘daemon’ concept fascinating and original, I do wish there was some explanation (or even speculation) on why a person’s daemon almost always manifested as a being of the opposite gender. It also wasn’t apparent as to what extent their existence was corporeal. Toward the ending it becomes clear that if a daemon is killed, its human dies as well. But the daemons come across more as energy-based rather than flesh and blood, so it’s unclear as to what degree or form of violence it takes to kill them. Their limitations also go unexplained. While there seems some correlation between the person’s personality and what sort of animal form their daemon ultimately settles on, the range depicted is something as small as a moth, to as large as a leopard. There is even a case noted where the chosen form was aquatic, which essentially meant its human could never again set foot on land. However, if there is a size/mass cap for their transformations, it’s never mentioned.
Final Verdict: “Meh”
This reader tends to agree with those who would assert this as a book best meant for adult audiences, which just so happens to have a child as its main character. Heavy in cynicism, bleak in conclusion, and lacking in child-like wonderment; this isn’t a story I’d recommend for kids. For all characters, the ends seem to justify the means. And from a parental standpoint, I didn’t find enough redemptive about the story to justify introducing it to my children--even after what feels like the appropriate age of 12. There are too many other middle-grade (and MG-appropriate) fantasy works out there with better plotlines and more inspiring messages to offer.