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THE GOLDEN COMPASS, by Philip Pullman. Presented by Jennifer Howard

Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page BW16

John Milton's "Paradise Lost" as inspiration for a series of YA novels? Unlikely, yes, except in the fantastic universes of Philip Pullman, whose "His Dark Materials" trilogy takes its title from Book II of Milton's satanic verses.

The Golden Compass, Book I of "His Dark Materials," introduces the heroine of the series: Lyra Belacqua, an orphan growing up half-wild among the Scholars of Jordan College, Oxford -- but not quite the Oxford we know. Lyra inhabits a world that intersects ours, one of an apparently infinite number that coexist, for the most part invisibly.

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With electricity (called anbaric power), motorcars and zeppelins, Lyra's world feels familiar in a retro way. But strange, too: "Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva . . . the Church's power over every aspect of life had been absolute." Stranger and more wonderful are the daemons. One of Pullman's most striking and moving inventions, they're animal-shaped manifestations of the soul. Children's daemons change form at will; when puberty hits, a daemon settles into a form that reflects his or her human's personality. Daemons and their humans cannot be separated -- at least not, as Lyra will discover, without world-shattering consequences. "A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense."

As The Golden Compass opens, Lyra -- bold and more than a little reckless, befitting the heroine of a grand adventure story -- has hidden in a wardrobe in a room where Lord Asriel, the explorer and politician whom she knows as her uncle, is revealing a great discovery to the Jordan Scholars. He has brought back proof from the Far North that other worlds exist.

Lyra's act of juvenile espionage sets in motion a train of events that will carry her across the ocean to the realms of Tartars, witches and armored bears. Along the way she and her daemon, Pantalaimon (a character in his own right), befriend gyptians (Gypsies); tangle with the child-snatching Gobblers, who've kidnapped Lyra's best friend, Roger; and are pursued by the lovely and dangerous Mrs. Coulter, a Church operative with a very particular interest in Lyra.

Helping Lyra in her quest to rescue Roger (and, although she doesn't know it, to fulfill a much greater destiny) is the alethiometer, the "golden compass" of the title, whose fate-spelling symbols she possesses the ability to read. Lyra and Lord Asriel are bound together in ways she will begin to understand only by the time The Golden Compass reaches its soul-rending conclusion in the frozen reaches of the Far North. Hint: It's no coincidence that Asriel's name echoes that of Azrael, sometimes called the Archangel of Death. And then there's Dust, elementary particles that may be the physical manifestation of original sin -- "an emanation from the dark principle itself," speculates a Jordan Scholar -- or something else altogether. It may be billed as fantasy for young adults, but Pullman has set out to recast the epic battle between Good and Evil, Light and Dark, God and the Devil -- and as becomes apparent in the sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, God may not be on the right side.

Please join me for a discussion of Philip Pullman's ambitious, heretical, Miltonian tale of adventure, betrayal and destiny on Thursday, Oct. 28, at 3 p.m. Log on to www.washingtonpost.com./liveonline. •


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