Science fiction and fantasy
by Philip Pullman
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.
If you like this, try:The Beguilers by Kate Thompson
They snare unwary travellers and lead them off cliffs. Hunting down a beguiler is thought to be insane, so why does Rilka want to do it?
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Zinzi has a sloth companion and a talent for finding things. But can she find a lost girl, or redemption for her past sins?
The Golden Compass by Chris Weitz
Northern Lights is adapted for film in this lavish CGI feast featuring armoured bears and daemon companions.
Review © Ros Jackson
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