I wonder, does The Golden Compass count as steampunk? I'm not sure, but my guess is that it does, which would explain why so many steampunk titles popped into my mind while I was thinking up read-alikes/watch-alikes.
Twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua (I could be wrong about her age...) has grown up wild and relatively free, raised haphazardly by the scholars at Jordan College. Like everyone else in this alternate world, Lyra has a daemon, a physical manifestation of her soul. Because she is still a child, her daemon, Pan, can assume whatever animal form he wishes. When a person goes through puberty, their daemon settles into a single form.
When Lyra first hears of the Gobblers (supposedly, monsters who eat children), she thinks of them mostly as delightfully scary story fodder. Then children she knows start to disappear, including her best friend, Roger. Lyra wants to find and save him but briefly finds herself distracted by a change in her own circumstances, after she is suddenly sent to live with the beautiful and mysterious Mrs. Coulter. After they learn that Mrs. Coulter is connected to the Gobblers, Lyra and Pan escape and are taken in by Gyptians, nomadic people who know more about Lyra and her past than she herself knows.
While traveling with the Gyptians, Lyra figures out how to use the alethiometer, a rare and very important device given to her before she left Jordan College. She befriends various people and beings, learns more about a mysterious thing called Dust and what the Gobblers really are, and tries to find a way to save her friend Roger and Lord Asriel, the man from whom she first learned about Dust.
I have read this book several times, and I think I may have listened to the audio version before as well, because several of the voices sounded very familiar. I love this book, although my enjoyment of it always seems to surprise me whenever I reread it. I'm not sure why that is. It's like I forget just how much I enjoyed it.
I haven't read the other two books in the trilogy nearly as often as this one – the second book spends a little too much time in our world for my tastes, and the third book is, from what I remember, heavier on philosophy and theology than the previous two. Although The Golden Compass can be enjoyed on a philosophical/theological level, particularly on a reread, I tend to approach it more as a fantasy lover who enjoys adventurous heroines, animal companions, and good world-building.
I probably would never include Lyra on a list of “favorite heroines of all time.” Her emotional connections to others seem fairly shallow to me, probably because she lives very much in the now. She loves Iorek and Roger and everyone else she befriends, and she defends them fiercely when they've entered her "now," but she tends to be easily distracted. For long stretches of time, it was easy to forget that Roger even existed. Although I cry every single time I get to the part where one particular child, a very minor character, dies, for some reason Roger's fate never affects me as strongly. I think Roger's fate is minimized by all the other things going on that Lyra and readers have to process.
It's not Lyra that attracts me to this book so much as Lyra's world. I think it was finding out about the daemons that first convinced me to read this when I was younger. I've always enjoyed books involving animal companions, and I loved the idea that kids in this world had ones that could be anything. I liked thinking about the kind of animal my own daemon would have settled into, if I had had one.
Just in general, Lyra's world is the stuff grand adventures are made of. At first, mentions of night-ghasts and spirits seem potentially like the products of an overactive imagination on Lyra's part, just another aspect of the games she and the other children play. However, as she journeys to find her friend Roger, it's revealed that her world really is that filled with fantasy. She encounters witches, long-lived women who are able to fly and whose daemons can travel farther from them than Lyra thought possible. She befriends Iorek, an armored bear who has no daemon, but whose armor seems to serve a similar function. Lyra also meets and befriend Lee Scoresby, a Texan aeronaut who flies with the aid of a hot air balloon. Every new place Lyra goes makes the world she lives in seem bigger and more amazing.
Because Lyra is such a straightforward person, despite her gift for lying, it seems like a straightforward story, at first: Lyra is on a grand and dangerous journey to rescue the people she cares about. However, there's a lot going on, both things that Lyra can understand, like the horror of what the General Oblation Board is doing, and things she knows very little about and is only partially able to process, like all the political machinations and the complex relationship between Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter. There are a lot of layers that Lyra doesn't even see until it's too late. I like that Pullman doesn't flinch away from tragedy and complexity just because his heroine happens to be young.
If you don't dislike audio books, I heartily recommend the audio version. I was at first hesitant about listening to a book read even partially by the author – some authors do a terrible job of reading their own works aloud – but Pullman turned out to be very listenable. Basically, he read all the narration, while other actors read the dialogue (some doing multiple parts, as I was surprised to learn when I listened to the ending credits). I liked some of the supporting actors better than others, but I thought that, on the whole, it was an excellent performance.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa; Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series) - If you liked the way science and fantasy was blended in The Golden Compass, you might want to try this series, set in an alternate world where alchemy is the dominant science. As in The Golden Compass, there are some religious references here and there (humunculi named after the Seven Deadly Sins), and the series' young protagonists learn that not all of the adults around them are trustworthy. Although there are also a few movies and another TV series, I'd recommend starting with either the manga or the original Fullmetal Alchemist TV series (which, by the way, diverges from the manga after a certain point). I've written about volume 16 of the manga.
- Last Exile (anime TV series) - Those who liked the bits with Lee Scoresby and his hot air balloon, as well as all the adventure in the book, may want to check this steampunk adventure series out. The main characters are children who act as couriers, flying Vanships in order to deliver messages.
- Sabriel (book) by Garth Nix - I think this book as a feel/style that is similar to The Golden Compass and, in general, the His Dark Materials trilogy. Those who'd like another YA fantasy with adventure and somewhat darker aspects might want to try this and the other books in the Abhorsen trilogy.
- Leviathan (book) by Scott Westerfeld - In this alternate history series set during WWI, the Austro-Hungarians and Germans fight with steam-powered machines and guns, while the British fight using genetically fabricated animals. I haven't read this yet, but I fully intend to. It's been on my TBR list for a while. Those who liked the action, adventure, and alternate history aspects of The Golden Compass may want to try this.
- The Twelve Kingdoms series (first book: Sea of Shadow) by Fuyumi Ono; The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - If you'd like another adventure story set in a fascinating world and featuring a heroine on a tough, dangerous journey, you might want to try this. Currently, unless you make use of your local library's ILL service, it's probably easier and cheaper to get the anime. Unfortunately, the anime doesn't really have an ending, and only four volumes of the books were ever translated into English. I've written about the anime and volumes 2 and 3 of the books.
- The Airman by Eoin Colfer - Another book featuring treachery, adventure, and a bit of flying technology.
- Mortal Engines (book) by Philip Reeve - I haven't read this yet, but it sounds fascinating. In this series, mobile cities hunt down smaller towns in order to consume them and reuse their materials, in a process known as Municipal Darwinism. Those who'd like another imaginative adventure story might want to try this. According to the Booklist quote on Amazon, it's "violence-filled," but I have no idea if the violence is comparable to that in The Golden Compass. That fight between Iorek and Iofur was pretty brutal, after all.
- Archangel (book) by Sharon Shinn - I've been trying to think of books that are similar in terms of the theological/philosophical aspects of The Golden Compass and, in general, the His Dark Materials trilogy, but my problem is that I don't generally read books that way. This, a book intended for adults, was the best I could do, and I'm not even sure it pushes the same buttons as The Golden Compass. Technically, a later book in the series (the second one? or maybe third?) that reveals secrets about the world the series is set in would probably be a better fit, but I'm not sure it would be a good idea to read this series out of order.