Northern Lights – by Philip Pullman
After seeing the (terrible) movie The Golden Compass years ago, I wasn’t in the least bit interested in reading Pullman’s acclaimed His Dark Materials series, no matter their fantastic reputation. But the rumours of their excellence continued to follow me – as someone who loves both fantasy and YA, the series seemed like a natural fit, or so I was (often) told. There are always so many things to read that they were never a priority. Until about three weeks ago, when I visited Oxford.
Oh my goodness. Oxford is amazing. It’s a gorgeous city, one big university town, made of white stone buildings that date back for hundreds of years. It’s been home to so many incredible figures, including writers like Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and, of course, Philip Pullman. While visiting, I saw an exhibition at the Bodleian Library called Magical Books, about works that inspired these great writers to their enchanting worlds. Pullman set the His Dark Materials sequence in a parallel Oxford. I was so intrigued by my visit here that I finally read the first book in the series. Here’s what I thought:
Oxford University is a place of learning and knowledge. But to Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, it’s just home. The rooftops, the alleyways, the underground hidey holes are all part of their domain. Before long, however, destiny calls for Lyra and Pantaliamon. Lyra’s famous uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel, brings reports of strange doings in the north. And in Oxford, children are going missing. When Lyra’s friend vanishes, she refuses to be left out of the plans to find him. Soon, Lyra’s on the run from mysterious forces, racing to the mysterious north to find answers. And all the while, strange forces who mark Lyra out as important are gathering ever closer.
The complexity of Pullman’s world is, immediately, my favourite thing about Northern Lights. Pullman, like Garth Nix, doesn’t sweat the small stuff. What you need to know, you know. What doesn’t need to be excruciatingly explained, isn’t. I really like this approach – although I gather not everyone else does. To me, it feels as though the reader is seen as smart enough to understand this world, and doesn’t need to be spoon fed every detail. It makes the setting feel much more authentic, to me. As in real life, you won’t necessarily know every little thing about the world around you. But you understand it just fine.
Lyra was a solid main character. I wouldn’t say she was remarkable – she was a standard main character for a fantasy series. I was absolutely fascinated by her daemon, Pantalaimon, and their relationship. This was the main ‘fantastical’ element of Pullman’s alternate universe, and was a tour de force of imagination and construction. That it was such a given, that everyone has their own shadow self, a daemon, and the customs that accompanied this sort of society, have become a huge part of the fantasy landscape. As well they should – this is a brilliant construction, and remains endlessly interesting.
The action dragged a little toward the middle of the book, but picked up appropriately in the final chapters, setting up a sequel (as the first book in a trilogy, that’s pretty important!).
I’m so glad I can finally say I’ve read Northern Lights! And I’m so glad I’ve read it. What a world. What a brilliant concept. I’ll soon be able to say I’ve read the entire trilogy. And not a moment too soon (in fact, a few moments too late, really!)
Have you read Pullman’s work? Are you shocked at how remiss I’ve been? Moreover, are you willing to forgive me it?!