Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Northern Lights

by Philip Pullman


Lyra is an unruly tomboy, a natural leader of hordes of children and an extravagant liar. She may be nobly born, but she prefers the company of kitchen boys and street children. The roofs of Jordan College, Oxford, are her highway. Although Lyra is a little wild, her daemon Pantalaimon is the opposite, the voice of her conscience. He tries to keep her in check and watches out for her safety. Pantalaimon can change his form at will to that of any animal.

In the world of Northern Lights, Lyra isn't the only one with a daemon. In fact all humans have them, a sort of outward expression of the soul. They are linked to their human, and usually may not leave their vicinity. This world shares our geography, as well as certain aspects of our history and world religions. However many aspects are unfamiliar, the daemons being just one. It's an alternate dimension.

At the beginning of the story we find Lyra spying on the master of Jordan college as he plans to poison Lord Asriel, the man Lyra believes to be her uncle. If this doesn't sound much like a children's book to you at this point, you would be right. Although Lyra is pre-pubescent, this sits right on the edge of the children's genre and insults nobody's intelligence. The concepts are new and younger readers could find them challenging, and at nearly 400 pages it's the length of an adult novel.

The "His Dark Materials" trilogy, of which this it the first book, has been compared to the Harry Potter books, both of which have won awards for children's fiction. It's a comparison that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Whilst both series could be classified as older children's fantasy, and both have been commercially successful, that's where the similarities end. Pullman takes us into much less familiar territory where the boundaries between good and evil are far less obvious.

Lyra learns about a mysterious city that is visible in the aurora, or northern lights. Lord Asriel also talks to the scholars about a strange invisible substance called Dust, before he leaves again for the north. Soon after, children begin to disappear from places around Britain. On the whole they are children no-one seems to care about, but eventually people start to notice. A rumour spreads that the kids are being taken by Gobblers, who will eat children. So when gypsy boy Billy Costa is taken, and then Lyra's friend Roger, panic spreads. Lyra vows to rescue him.

When the beautiful and sophisticated Mrs Coulter comes on the scene, Lyra is at first very taken with her. She is happy to leave Oxford with her and assist with planning a journey north. Before she goes the Master gives Lyra an arcane instrument, but instructs her to keep quiet about it. However Mrs Coulter is not all she seems, and Lyra soon feels the need to run away.

Lyra journeys north with the help of gypsies, and comes across flying witches and armoured bears who talk but have no daemons. Lyra learns of the unrelenting cruelty of the experiments carried out on the kidnapped children, and danger follows at every turn. It's not a book for the easily shocked or the squeamish. There is violence, blood, and a few deaths which are particularly gory. If they made this book into a film it would need significant cuts or an 18 certificate.

The ending is unexpected, and disturbing on several levels. Yet it is satisfying, and it certainly won't disappoint. However as the first book in a trilogy we know that the story will continue, and it leaves the reader wanting to know more rather than being final.

Northern Lights is one of the best books I've read in a while, for any age group. It carries the reader along at a cracking pace, and the heroine is feisty and courageous, someone you will care about. Incredibly inventive and fresh with ideas, it's no run-of-the-mill fantasy. Too many books in this genre live in the shadow of Tolkien and trot out the usual troll/orc/demon bad guys, versus the good. If anything this owes a debt to Michael Moorcock, but it's no pale imitation of his multiverse stories.

Philip Pullman doesn't allow the mood to be broken up much by humour. This isn't a fault as such, because he maintains the tension throughout and manages to sustain interest by other means. But it makes this a dark book overall, and especially during the latter half of it. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone young enough to be frightened by Voldemort in the Goblet of Fire. For everyone else though it should be a highly enjoyable, extremely engrossing read.

Book Details

Decade: 1990s

Categories: Books

  YA     Fantasy
    Female Protagonist  

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Northern Lights is adapted for film in this lavish CGI feast featuring armoured bears and daemon companions.

5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

More about Phillip Pullman


david spekim     31st October, 2004 12:30pm

im 12 years old and thought the book was too complicated for some1 of mi age. i think it would have been better with pictures and if lyra got murderd to add more drama.

tiff     24th November, 2004 15:02pm

i am 14 years old and I have read this book several times as it is so good, the book keeps on making you carving for more. and makes a rather disturbing image of a severed child on my mind. The book is very imaginative and probably the best book I've ever read.

Lilly Shaw     18th March, 2005 16:00pm

I'm 16 years old and first read Northern Lights when I was 11 and I still find it as gripping and as adventurous as when I first read it. I think Lyra is an appealing character to all, showing a great sene of strength as well as compassion for others. I especilly love the intricate detail Philip Pullman draws upon (such as the daemons) to materilaise a fantastical story with an enthralling plot bursting with imaginative characters.

Alan Peters     20th March, 2005 19:01pm

I am perhaps one of the biggest fans of Northern Lights, but am I alone in thinking that the Amber Spyglass was a bit of a let down in comparison to the frist two? I mean, I think that Philip Pullman made it far too complicated and difficult to understand, and I think that he overestimated the age group that his Dark materials appeal to- young teens. It was also too long and whereas in the first two books my attention never faltered, in this one, I found myself picking it up reluctantly telling myself that the boring part would be over soon!

Lilly Shaw     23rd March, 2005 14:49pm

I am sorry Alan Peters, but I think that you are toatalyy wrong in describing the Amber Spyglass as a complete bore. I think that yes it was difficult to understand but I wouldn't have liked it if Philip Pullman changed it in any way in order to make it suitable for the main age group as it would not have been his orginal thoughts and ideas of the book. I think that his dark materials is an overall genius piece of literature.

king honest     13th May, 2005 10:53am

i am finding the book so complicated i am on page 146 and i still dont know wat is going on i meen i understand da smallest amount of da book. A little less complicated next time plz philip pullman

Sheredan Ford     19th July, 2005 19:31pm

I am 17 years old but first read the book when i was 13. i had no difficulty whatsoever in understanding its meaning, which to me seems extremely clear: the line between good and evil is not clear cut, one must look carefully for it. the trilogy remains my favourite set of books and i cannot congratulate philip pullman enough.

molly     2nd December, 2005 00:23am

i like this book alot it is v gripping but a littl hard to understand. lyra is a grt character and is really insperational but i am only up to pg 163 and i still dont get it can some1 plz explain?

sofia     5th December, 2005 13:13pm

I absolutly hated it. I want to love it but can't. I don't understand how anyone can like this book. It's disturbing how her own parents hate her. I have only read northern lights. because I had to (schoolproject) and I'm considering to read the other two books to see if it gets any better. You know, it should appeal to me, as I am from the north (Sweden) but again, it didn't. Felt like he got things wrong. He should've mentioned Sweden and Norway once in a while, cuz I reckon they travelled through them. I want to paint up a picture of where they are when I'm reading a book, but Pullman never did that. So it became somewhat messy. I know all of you will defend the books you all love so much, but that's just what I think. And believe me, I wish I didn't hate it....

dani     2nd April, 2006 04:20am

it was pretty boring... we had to read it as a novel study in class and i struggled to get through it without my mind wandering... no offence but i dont understand how it is scary... i was scared of voldemort in the GoF and i wasnt scared at all of this book... my friend has read the other books and has said it gets better... so i will probably read those because i want to know what dust is... harry potter is still the best young teen series out there!!!! lol

betty boo     25th June, 2006 19:05pm

well,where can i stat........ fantastic book i read the rby in the smoke to that was gd but northeren lights brilll
`hope lord asriel is fit i named my gerbil after him lol :)

_kimmi_     26th July, 2006 10:05am

heyyz im 14 and i didnt like the book at all. i couldnt get into it and im reading it for skool. im doin an essay on it now and ive only read half of it. im dead but its not my fault. the book waz not good. sorry

Elisabeth     15th December, 2006 22:44pm

I 1st read this book @ age 9 and thought it woz gr8. I cried @ da end of the Amber Spyglass and thought they were the best trilogy I've eva read. Gr8 work, Mr Pullman!!

anita taylor     1st June, 2007 23:23pm

I found the first book Northern Lights very slow and difficult to start but once passed the invisible barrier, totally brilliant. The second book was by far the best, more excitement and adventure but more of'this world's loss and sorrow' with the several deaths showing that the balance of good and evil is very far from equal. The third book did not live up to expectation of the first two but was, I feel, full of hidden meanings and after all where and how do you end a trilogy. It certainly was more than adequate with an ending which perhaps was less than satisfactory (if you like happy endings) This is one of those books which appeals to many adults rather than young teenagers. I hated Wind in the Willows when I was thirteen but it has pride of place in my bookshelf now as has Lord of the Rings. This trilogy would not be out of place with the aforementioned or William Horwoods brilliant trilogy of the Dunction Wood tales.

Tiffany     2nd November, 2007 15:17pm

This I will never read. I know they are coming out with a movie which i advice not to watch. As you need to understand these books are based upon GOD being bad. If u have read it and said you understood then how come no mention about how god is put down and the churches. I am huge follower of god and advice you not to get this for your kids or watch the movie coming out. the movie may not say anything about god. but still actually read the book.

Dale     30th November, 2007 11:31am

I'm 40 and read the series prior to letting my 10 yo read it. I loved it, found it gripping and exciting. I was concerned about some of the themes for a 10 yo, such as death. My son took it in stride but I spent some time talking through it with him. Glad I read them first.
Can't wait for the movie.

Charlotte     4th February, 2009 19:44pm

I thought this book was great! It was at first a bit slow to get into but it was so gripping as it went on. I thought the idea of the daemons was so interesting and well developed. The inside meaning and allusion of it was a brilliant fantasy and I couldn't stop reading it. The end is so sad but it really makes you want to read the next book and the part of the fight was so suspenseful. I would read the next 2 following books after if you were really interested in this book and maybe some books from William Mayne, Susan Price or David Almond.

Arika Raza     9th March, 2009 16:48pm

I found Northern Lights quite slow, difficult and boring in the beginning but a few pages later I found it gripping and exiting. I thought that the idea of daemons was quite interesting. My favorite book recently is Northern Lights. It is a phenomenal book filled with details and imagination. And the movie is more or less the same.

schneider     14th October, 2009 16:51pm

God as an imposter? Satan as the heroic avenging angel? Where do you draw the line?

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