The first part of this book is set in the city of Oxford, while the second and last parts of it are set in the far North of the planet. However, this Oxford is on an alternative earth, with humans whose souls are "familiars" in the form or animals that live outside the bodies of their human counterparts. Each individual's daemon is closely linked to his or her human and symbolizes something about their human's character. At the same time, humans carry on verbal and mental conversations, even arguments, with their daemons, which are usually of the opposite sex. A daemon continues to change from one animal to another until the humans pass through puberty. At this point in a person's life, the daemon becomes fixed. When the person dies, it seems to disappear.
The work follows the perspective of Lyra, first describing her unlikely home in an Oxford college where the rest of the residents are adult male scholars of various ages. Through her eyes, we first see a few rooms in Jordan College and then the rest of her childhood world in the city of Oxford. The author intended this Oxford to be contemporary with ours, but a parallel world where technology and society have taken a different turn. The city is late Victorian in feel, with few electric (they are called Anbaric) devices available to the general populace and no hint of motorized transport. Steam trains are mentioned but they do not figure in Lyra's travel, which is either by foot, boat, steamship, and dogsled. Lyra is something of an adventurer who has not been subject to the discipline of a family or a primary school. Her education is spotty, being conducted by whatever junior scholar of Jordan College is available to take her on. This also means that much of the time she is left to her own devices. We thus see the streets, alleys, buildings, and colleges from her perspective, but the wealth of detail makes them a rich background and her adventuresome spirit is the author's excuse for portraying the roofs, dungeons, burial crypts, riverbanks, and canals. To anyone who has been to Oxford, many of the descriptions are recognizable. What is missing are the railroad stations, modern buildings, including the modern shops and department stores of High and Broad streets, automobiles and all the bustle we associate with contemporary Britain. It is as if the city, and perhaps her whole world, is caught in some kind of time warp, caused by the dominance of a strictly Calvinist church with many and far-reaching political powers. For example, the explorers who inspire her and whom she joins later in the book use lighter-than-air balloons but not airplanes and certainly not jets. Then there is "magic," mostly in the form of daemons, ghosts, magical substances, and witches. Witches are able to fly sitting on a kind of pine-branch called cloud-pine. Quasi-mechanical spies are powered by daemons, and the Lyra uses the all-important Alitheometer to assess people's characters and forecast future events (The Golden Compass of the American title).
Soon after the novel begins, Lyra is taken from Oxford to London, to live with her newfound mother, the glamorous Mrs. Coulter. This is also a retrofitted London with a highly stratified social and economic system. Then she escapes from her mother because that same woman is a member of the Oblation Board, a religious institution that steals and harms children. Lyra teams up with the gyptians, whose children are most at risk and then we are treated to another slice of alternative Britain. Finally, she journeys to north to Lapland with the gyptians, hoping to rescue her friend Roger and Lord Asriel, whom she discovers is her father. This is the device used by Pullman to introduce us to the many other civilizations of this alternative universe whose inhabitants live either in the fens on their boats (the gyptians), in small towns which are reminiscent of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century, or in frozen huts in the arctic. Some of the arctic inhabitants...
(The entire section is 3,297 words.)