It’s kind of impossible to talk about it without mentioning Narnia, and if you know about me and my reading list you know that I did not like the Chronicles of Narnia. The Golden Compass felt like an anti-Narnia, which is also how many critics have seen it. I knew this going in, but I didn’t read it with the intention of seeing the relationship to Narnia, and it’s not like it matches up one for one with the Narnia series or anything. It’s more like the story kept doing things well that I always wished the Narnia stories had done better.
There’s only one child-hero, Lyra, and she acts exactly like a normal human child; one of my big complaints about the Narnia stories is that all the good kids are too obedient, too responsible, too resilient in the face of trial and tragedy. The Narnia kids become an obvious – and unrealistic – caricature for the way C. S. Lewis thinks kids ought to behave. Lyra, on the other hand, is very realistically portrayed, in a way that reminds me of Huckleberry Finn more than anything else. She lies. She fights. She disobeys, she gets ferociously angry at times, and she is quick to unleash her anger on anyone, child or adult. But at the essence of her actions is a basic sense of what is right, which she feels strongly and naturally. It demonstrates the same native sense of morality that Huck Finn exhibits when he chooses to help Jim to freedom, even though he knows it is a crime and believes that this crime will damn his soul to hell.
Perhaps the only difference is that Lyra would decide that doing the right thing could never damn a person's soul, and therefore anyone who thought it would must have gotten it wrong.
She demonstrates a personal moral sense that is missing from the Narnia series; Lyra has no need to consult with a god-lion in order to choose her actions. But she is also a believable character in a way seldom seen in children's adventure stories; instead soldiering through hardship without complaint or reaction, Lyra feels the difficulty of her journey but finds strength in her tenacity and courage. It was incredibly entertaining, and I can't wait to finish the next in the series.
That next book is The Subtle Knife, which I have started. Where The Golden Compass takes place in another world, The Subtle Knife begins in our world. See what I mean? Narnia.