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The World of the Golden Compass

I received The World of the Golden Compass through the mail today, and after feeling important and official carrying a Global Priority packet (complete with the amazing rip-off strip that English post is sadly lacking!), I was surprised at the size. From the few images of the book I had seen, I expected it to be around A4 size, yet this book is somewhere between A4 and A5, which is perfect for reference books. The cover is very well presented, and I like the image of the Alethiometer that graces the centre - obviously (and quite quickly) computer-rendered, but that adds to the charm of the book, in my view (it also perfectly sums up my review! Stay tuned!). The blurb on the back cover is quirky and refreshing; clearly this book is, although meant for reference, a fun journey through many topics, including why it's a bad idea to have dinner with Mrs Coluter and what to do when your dæmon is your laptop (guilty as charged!). A cursory flick-through gives me great pleasure to say that each essay within this collection is referenced (properly! :D ), and footnotes are everywhere to help with some of the tougher points without the essay deviating from the point.

The foreward is written by Scott Westerfeld, and even though it just introduces the book, I have already learned a few more interesting facts (buy the book to find out!). The essays themselves are, as with the blurb, quirky and fun, giving a wealth of information in a professional way. The target audience is the teenage market, which, thanks in part to His Dark Materials itself, has boomed in recent years, and I feel the writers within the collection have hit the proverbial nail on the head. From the outset with the Introduction, each essay has a small paragraph which tells the reader exactly what they're in for in the next half-hour, which is possibly even better than the typical indexing strategem employed by most. What I found particularly impressive was the way the book keeps the fine balance between formal and informal perfectly. This paragraph in Dæmons and the Hunt for the Human Soul, donated by Susan Vaught, is a particularly good example:

In contemprary philosophical thinking, the seat of reason has been shifted into the forebrain, into the cortex itself- that part of the brain closest to the skull, at the top and front of the head. Open that door between the eyes, walk in and step upward a few inches. Maybe even double back a step, and stop. Yes. Right there.

A detailed anatomical analysis goes hand in hand with colloquial 'directions', appealing to those of a more scientific mind and the creative, something rare within any detailed reference book. Within Dear Soul: The Nature of Dæmons, a Druid's viewpoint, we are supplied with a helpful grid displaying the similarities between His Dark Materials' dæmon philosophy and the Druid philosophy, appealing to yet another variety of audience who prefer visual cues. Quite simply, this book appears to have everything.

There are a couple of weaknesses in the book, however. While hardly the worst offence a book can commit, the "Completely Unauthorized" adorning the topmost half-inch of the book immediately puts me in mind of the sensationalist journalism that is all-too-often found in £3.99 magazines and gives off the wrong message about the content. While I understand why it is there, it isn't required; to be blunt, the book is better than the "unauthorized" title. However, this is merely cosmetic - there is no particular issue if you can ignore this, and it doesn't detract from the quality of writing inside any. Regardless, the fact that we all do what the saying advises against and "judge a book by its cover" may well play a part for some potential readers.

A second weakness can be found with the lack of an index. I know that I said it was nice to see the focus on a short synopsis before beginning, but the fact remains that an index would help in quick reference; sometimes all we need for a quote is a quick point that we don't want to spend a while sifting through for.

The third is, again, absolutely cosmetic, and it is with the final few pages. I can show you exactly what they look like, but you'd probably get bored with them in seconds because they are blank. While this is a boon for me and my colleagues, who would make note after note on them, many people will have no use for them. It's a waste of resources, to be honest. Long enough for my new-found index obsession, and yet it seems the printer ran out of ink after the end of the last essay. As I said, I think I understand where this idea has come from, but I don't think enough of the audience will use them for notes and important pages to make it worthwhile. With just another 26 books, the entire collection could be reproduced on those blank pages, and I believe that's a bit of a missed opportunity for a collection of this calibre.*

Regardless, these seem to be the faults in their entirity. The book is well presented, the contents are clear and very succinct, and each essay has a page between them, another opportunity for pencil scribblings.

The most impressive thing about the collection is the way in which they have been researched. It is clear that the contributors haven't just typed "Dæmon" into Google and copied the first page; there are genuinely impressive journals and textbooks that have been used. The New York, Oxford and Yale University Presses are recurring sources, and when coupled with regular journals such as The New Yorker, it is clear even before we start to read that these have been very thoroughly thought out and probably surpass dissertation material.

Back to my very first point, however, about the rendered Alethiometer. It is in no way as detailed as the one displayed on the European Northern Lights, yet it perfectly sums up the essays within. This book is not intended to be a guide that deals with specifics; sometimes there is no need for such detail, and all we want is a broader perspective on some of the included concepts and symbolism. In this way, we have been given a rare thing with this collection. What has been achieved here is no mean feat, for as the introduction goes:

As this anthology began to take shape, one complaint became constant among the contributors. Pullman had provided them with an embarrassment of riches. Or perhaps a confusion of riches. His Dark Materials simply contained too many ideas.

Yet everything seems to be covered. There are discoveries within the pages that show Pullman did think of absolutely everything, and even some ideas I thought were simply made up turn out to be subtle reference to Arctic legends and phenomena, Greek mythology and theory, and lashings of quantum theory. If anything, these books are as good as the series- where His Dark Materials goes, The World of the Golden Compass will inevitably follow, with an idiosyncratic style that is part Parkinson, part Mastermind. I was worried that the sub-title, The Otherworldly Ride Continues was another marketing gimmick like the "completely unauthorized" that I obsessed over before, and once again, I find myself agreeing with what I thought.

But for a very different reason. Whereas the book doesn't need the unauthorized sensationalism, it needs a better sub-title, because it does not do such brilliant genius justice. His Dark Materials was the definitive fantasy story. And now it seems we have a definitive explanation. Similar titles are extremely good in their own right; they take each individual concept and explain it so thoroughly that you fast become an expert, but you can use this book while you read, and you won't forget where you were as you do it. If you suddenly think "Hang on... Marisa has a little fun with Asriel at the Bridge, but then she turns away from him... What's going on?", you can turn directly to page 43, and the rather lewdly titled (but still stellar) essay Hot Sex and Horrific Parenting in His Dark Materials, and the relationship will be explained in inimitable style. Wonder where you can find your dæmon? Look no further than the flair within pages 83-93 with Dæmons and the Hunt for the Human Soul. This book does not deal in the absolutes that many other reference books do; it deals with the broader and often harder to grasp concepts that Pullman includes with skill that is rarely seen in this day and age.

Put simply, if you come to a discussion on His Dark Materials (as you inevitably will in Cittagazze, our forum), this book is an extremely good place to begin to formulate your opinion. For me, this book has become indespensible in the three hours I have had it. Borders, Scott Westerfeld, and BenBella Books should be proud.

Which leads me onto my final point. Borders have the single rights to sell this book - unless you see a battered copy in a second-hand bookshop for 30 pence, you will not see it outside of a Borders. Unfortunately, this extends to other countries; they do not sell outside the United States, and now that I have reviewed this book, I can't stress enough how much of a shame that is. However, I reckon if we start a petition, maybe we can goad them into it.

And where better to begin that petition than with this?

*Since writing this review, I have received an email telling me that they make the book divisible by eight, thereby reducing production costs and make printing and binding less time-consuming.

The World of the Golden Compass, ed. Scott Westerfeld, BenBella Books, 2007. 210 pages. $14.99 (U.S. Paperback). Reviewer's Rating: **** (out of five stars).

Comments (1) — Add Yours

I was very interested in how this title would turn out, whether it would be a bunch of “stuffy old men with long white beards” trying to tamp down the overflowing thrill that makes - at least me - love the trilogy, and stake it through to some good solid earth.

It sounds refreshingly like I was mistaken and the essay writers appear to have a good sense of humor about them. Enough plays on “Dark Materials” and “Compass” already - give us “Hot Sex” for a good subtitle!

# Posted by Phit on 20:45, 12 February 2008

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