The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials, Book 1

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Popular with kidsParents recommend
Nail-biting, violent fantasy has elements of mystery.

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 37 reviews

Kids say

age 11+
Based on 71 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Lots of social science, exploration of what makes us human encompassed in the daemon lore of this series. Part of every human's soul is outside of their body in the form of a daemon, which is an animal that talks to their human and feels what they feel. Throughout the book, readers learn social rules about interaction with other people's daemons, how daemons interact with each other, how children's daemons take many forms until they "settle" in puberty, how painful it is to be separated from this vital part of the self. Adam and Eve story from the Bible is retold.

Positive Messages

Bravery, cunning, mastering fear, and intuition (a key to using the golden compass). Harming the innocent for the pursuit of knowledge and ambition is the ultimate evil here. The good side fiercely protects others.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lyra gets into trouble and lies a lot, but it's mostly to protect herself and others. She discovers her powerful sense of intuition using the alethiometer (golden compass) and then discovers her bravery on a rescue mission. She is abandoned more than once by both her parents and builds unlikely but fierce friendships that sustain her. She also has a real sense of adventure.


Many children are kidnapped, experimented on; some die. Two deaths are very sad for the main character, who fears that she will also be experimented on. Gory moments in skirmishes and battles include a heart ripped out and eaten, a jaw torn off, an arrow through the neck, gushing blood. A frozen severed head is brought to a meeting, shown off. Kids are threatened by dogs and guns in a skirmish as they try to flee. A fire is set and more fire launched in a catapult weapon. A machine gun firing, an exploding airship. Story of a man killed with a gun, his brains dashed out.


A passionate kiss.


"Hell," "arse," "bloody," and "damn," but not often.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Story of Lyra and her friend Roger trying alcohol at a young age; Roger vomits. They also try smoking. Lyra, at age 12, is given wine to drink more than once. A man smokes a pipe, another a cigar. Scholars drink liquor, smoke cigars. A bear often drinks to drunkenness.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Golden Compass is the first book in the highly acclaimed His Dark Materials series. A mediocre movie was made of the book in 2007, and a better HBO miniseries began airing in 2019. This book is often banned because of author Philip Pullman's take on religion, though it's quite specific to more dogmatic religious thought, and this plays much more of a role in the third book in the series, The Amber Spyglass, and the companion Book of Dust series. Most readers, young adult and adult, will be more focused on this stunning world where humans each have a daemon (animal companion that's part of their soul). Expect some scary and gory scenes. Many children are kidnapped and experimented on, and some die after the experiments. Two of those deaths are very sad for the main character, Lyra, who fears that she will also be experimented on. Gory moments in skirmishes and battles include a heart ripped out and eaten, a jaw torn off, an arrow through the neck, gushing blood, and more. There's also underage drinking and smoking, and a bear drinks to drunkenness. Lyra finds trouble easily and lies often, but much of it is to protect herself and others. In the course of The Golden Compass, Lyra discovers her powerful intuition and her own bravery.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byHolly R. April 1, 2019

I'm rating the series age as a whole

The books have both good morals and bad morals. The good morals is that Lyra is a strong, brave, loyal friend who stands up for what needs to be done even thoug... Continue reading
Adult Written bykingdomcomes November 8, 2015

About religion and how to read this book

Ok, so I first read this when I was like 9 years old, and I only read the first book I never finished it, but I remember liking it a lot. The reason why I didn... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byA.M. June 21, 2010


A great read, with plenty of action and violence to keep readers interested. I enjoyed this book much more than the Amber Spyglass or the Subtle Knife, because... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old June 27, 2010

Too many Christian parents not letting their kids read this wonderful book!

I loved this book. Im an Athiest and im proud but thats not the reason i loved this book. It did have a few sexual elements but if you know about that stuff abo... Continue reading

What's the story?

In THE GOLDEN COMPASS, readers enter a parallel world, dark and cold, with daemons, boat-dwelling gypsies, armored bears, and a street child with a strange destiny. Children, even Lyra's best friend Roger, start disappearing, victims of mysterious kidnappers called Gobblers. Lyra is given a magical instrument that tells the future and is sent off with the glamorous Mrs. Coulter. When she learns that Mrs. Coulter runs the Gobblers, she escapes, touching off a race to save the kidnapped children. With the help of the Gyptians, a boat-dwelling people, and Iorek Byrnison, a talking, warrior polar bear, she travels to the Arctic, where she finds that the children are being subjected to ghastly experiments that separate them from their souls. Meanwhile Iorek battles for control of the warrior bears, and Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel, prepares to blast a hole between worlds.

Is it any good?

Nail-biting suspense grabs readers until they can't shake themselves loose from this strange world -- familiar, but definitely not the earth we know. The magical quality of Lyra's world sets readers' imaginations soaring. This place is so convincingly portrayed that the experiments performed on the children seem as gruesome to the reader as to Lyra. Readers soon accept her world, and they especially love this smart, rowdy hero. Forget about sweet, honest girls -- this scrappy street fighter uses all her wits to outfox the villains, and discovers mystical talents that she never knew she had.

For avid readers, fantasy buffs, and kids who are outgrowing children's fantasies, The Golden Compass is a great treasure. As this fierce hero battles the Gobblers, and follows a mystical device to a universe-altering confrontation in the Arctic, tweens and teens will be gripping this book with white knuckles long past lights out. Even reluctant readers may get hooked if you begin by reading it aloud. Since it ends in a true cliffhanger, the next stop is The Subtle Knife.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in The Golden Compass. Some pretty tough stuff happens in this book -- for example, kids are experimented on and killed. Is it overwhelming, or does the fantasy setting make it easier to handle?

  • This book has now been made into a movie and an HBO miniseries. If you've seen the film and TV versions, how do they compare with the book? Which do you prefer? What would you have done differently if you were the director?

  • Will you read more in the series? What do you think happens after the huge cliffhanger?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and magic

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