Book Review: Northern Lights

Book One of His Dark Materials

By Philip Pullman

Lyra is a wild child amongst a family of scholars. She has no known parents, but when her mysterious uncle comes to the university, her mischievousness saves his life. And her eyes are opened.

A deep yearning to follow her uncle and follow him north stirs, but no. She must stay where she is. That is until the fabulously cosmopolitan Mrs Coulter offers her the same opportunity. She leaves, but not before she is given a strange golden compass.

But her friend has been stolen by the Gobblers, and Mrs Coulter is involved. So she flees. She runs, and with the help of the Gyptians, a family she never knew she had, she treks north to save her friend and her uncle. But there is so much more to it than that. There is magic afoot, and she is at the centre of it all.

Another series I’ve failed to read for way too long, and another brilliant one at that. I got confused to start with and couldn’t work out where this book fitted into the . Wasn’t the first one called the ‘Golden Compass’, I asked myself? Of course, what I was missing was that the Golden Compass is the ‘US publication-name’. So in conclusion, Northern Lights is the Golden Compass. Got it?

Right, what have we got then? Well, it’s an epic fantasy, but not as we know it. Normally we’re thrown into an entirely fictional setting, where every detail is alien and novel. Well, maybe not every detail, but you know what I mean. But this is not the case here. Where do we start out? Oxford of course, a university town in England. I don’t think dates are mentioned specifically, but this feels early twentieth century – pre-WWII. Not very fantasy at all. Or is it…

The basic thrust of the story is that a bunch of children are going missing, including a friend of our protagonist, Lyra. Being a somewhat wild child, Lyra embarks on an adventure to rescue the children alongside a band of nomadic “Gyptians”, whilst also running from the “Church”. Will they save the children? That is the question, isn’t it. But perhaps more importantly, what will they discover when they get there? This is all very enticing.

But on the face if, this might seem a bit un-fantastical, right? Well, no. It’s fantastic! Even from page one, we are instantly thrown into a fantasy world despite the setting. Lyra is introduced to us alongside her “daemon” – Pantalaimon – which is pretty fantastic. What is a demon? Well, it’s a bit like a magical-conscience-companion that each and every human has. It takes the form of an animal (or indeed many animals when their human-counterpart is still young), but can communicate with and indeed challenge their human. And they can also work on behalf of their human too, such that human-daemon partnerships are very very strong. Imagine being separated from your conscience – that sort of strong. It’s a very unique and warming idea.

But of course, there are many other interesting “fantasy” elements too. The main antagonistic thread is provided by the “Magisterium”, an international theological institution which actively suppresses heresy. And alongside this, there is just enough manipulation of the “real world” (e.g. the more common use of zeppelins) for this all to feel fantastical. It’s really rather cleverly done. But of course, there are some aspects which are more obviously foreign (aside from the witches!), and the biggest of these is the bears. Oh yes, we have warrior polar bears in this, which is awesome.

Our favourite bear is Iorek Byrnison, and he is effectively an outcast who is recruited by Lyra and her band of “Gyptians” to help out rescuing the children. Now, the most notable thing about warrior bears (apart from being bears that can talk and wade into battled) is that they don’t have daemons (puts it all into context doesn’t it? But they have a similar affinity to more material aspects, and there is a really great depth to the “panserborne” race. My only complaint about the bears is that the other key bear is called Iofur Raknison, and I found myself confused at points as to who I was reading about. But that is a small thing.

The other thing that I really like about this is the very clever links to high-end theoretical physics. Being a bit of a geek, I like to keep on top of my Higgs Boson and my String Theory so it was amazing to see this woven so cleverly. Is it magic? Or is it just the absurd science of reality? Who cares – it’s great.

So, was there anything not to like? Not much in all honesty. It’s written in the classic fantasy narrative style, but done exceptionally (as all these classics are!) Perhaps the Gyptians had rather more authority and reach than what I was able to comfortably accept, but the world is fantastical enough for this to drift by.

Perhaps the only comment is that ending is all rather “2001” – and by that I mean abstract. This leads into book two, so there’s nothing wrong per-se, but I felt that the threads were still wild once I’d finished. Does this make me want to read the next one? Of course it does, so its hardly a problem, but just a word of warning. If you’re going to read this then be prepared. It is a journey!

So all in all another classic classic. Highly recommended.

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