My rating: 2 of 5 stars
*BEWARE THAR BE SPOILERS*
Children are being grabbed across London and the only one that can stop the kidnapping is a little girl and her shape-shifting, talking daemon. With a talking bear and a tribe of Gyptians as companions, Lyra races across the landscape to confront the evil Mrs. Coulter and her Gobblers as well as rescue her father from the other talking bears. There's a golden compass somewhere in there too, but don't worry about it cause none of the characters do either.
The setting of our story is other dimension London/Frozen North. The Church rules everything with an iron fist, allowing for plausible deniability with every turn. Steampunk rules the landscape, with everything running off of gas or candle power. Oh, did I mention everyone wears their soul on the outside in the form of a random animal and their are talking bears? This is a little jarring as the semi-modern location and steampunk feel of the atmosphere do not lend to a fantasy... yet talking animals abound. Yeah, let’s meet the people.
First up is Lyra, the main character. As a precocious little girl raised by Scholars (think monks), Lyra is a bit of a wild child prone to mouthing off and getting into trouble. And that’s what she does most of the time when she is not sleeping.
Then we have our main villains, Mrs. Coulter and the Gobblers. In charge of snatching children from the streets, these people are nice and calm on the outside but are capable of a cold and merciless type of violence that makes for terrifying fridge logic thoughts (the ones that occur after you are done reading/viewing and come to you as you are getting a snack from the fridge).
Armored bears are also in this book, but think of them as as dwarves mashed with Klingons, a proud warrior race that is good with metal and really cares about honor.
The characters as a whole are more defined than I give them credit for, but for the most part are lazy. The story is driven almost exclusively by the actions of the villains with (with the exception of one or two scenes) our heroes being reactive. I cannot count how many times I wondered if Lyra falling asleep was a catalyst for change in this story. If she were Sleeping Beauty these folks might have build a space shuttle by the time she woke up.
The central theme in this story seems to be about innocence and experience. Lyra, our innocent child, is introduced to several very horrifying truths throughout the tale, including being betrayed by those she should trust the most and getting help by those set up as villains early on. These lessons are well thought out and acted, albeit in a very dry and talkative manner.
The author does seem to have several reasons to write this story, but none of the themes I came away with are important enough to continue the series. The most prominent seems to be to create a world that shows the evils of religion and power as well as how bad it is to go against one’s nature. I half expected the villain to be the Pope with a giant bat as his daemon.
As a novel, the writing is not impressive. The descriptions and language are well used, but there are many flaws in the narrative. Much of the story is filler with either one character relating previous events or Lyra reflecting on what has happened to her. The action, with two great exceptions, is poor at best giving us either a “too close” perspective like that of the Matt Damon Bourne movies or happens just off screen with yet another character telling the reader what happened.
Why was it banned?
The book was banned mainly for religious reasons. The author, a devout atheist (can you be devout... whatever), threw in a lot of re-imaginings of biblical texts to fit in with his world. I would have loved to have heard his view on Noah, what with two of everything and then the people and their daemon’s drowning outside the boat. He also does not paint the Church (religion as a whole, but mostly Christian) in a good light as it appears being excommunicated is paramount to being shot into the sun. This backwards view of society via the books steampunkian way-back machine could easily be seen as an attack on religion and a “poisoning of young minds” with horrible thoughts of independent thinking and the horrors of power going amok. And if ideas alone were not enough to get the book banned, there is some pretty graphic violence, including a scene where one character gets half his face ripped off by another and a scene where Lyra gets attacked that left me more than disturbed.
My final opinion on the book is shaky at best. I had more to complain about than praise and felt that reading this book was more of a chore than a pleasure. There are friends I would recommend this to, but none that I would like to talk about it with. I doubt I will ever finish this series, or even continue it, even though there is a cliffhanger at the end. I would recommend this to kids and adults who liked Harry Potter but thought those books had too many interesting things in it.