Rewiew: Northern Lights (His Dark Materials, Book One) by Philip Pullman

Margot McGovern rediscovers a favourite fantasy read.

I recently did a fairly ruthless purge of my bookshelves. My books were double stacked and covered in dust. Most I hadn’t touched in years and, if I’m to be completely honest, I wasn’t going to pick them up again anytime soon. It seemed silly to hang onto them. The ones I kept fell into four categories: those I hadn’t yet read (setting me loose in a bookshop is a dangerous and costly affair), those I wrote about in my PhD thesis (because Stockholm syndrome. Just looking at them is enough to induce a mild panic attack), those I found brilliant and want to have on hand to lend out and those special few I love more than most people and find continually comforting and inspiring. This final pile is small—a little shelf of Highsmiths, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, John Green’s Looking for Alaska (both of which also fall under the PhD category), a copy of T. S. Eliot’s collected poems, Roald Dahl’s Boy, John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow’ series, a Daphne du Maurier omnibus, the ‘Harry Potter’ novels, Peter PanThe Odyssey, Treasure IslandThe Secret GardenNabokov’s Lolita, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (The Golden Compass).

These are the books that have shaped my understanding of language and storytelling—the books that make me want to write, and to write better, and also to read more and to demand more from my reading. I recently took the last of these, Northern Lights, and settled down for a reread, eager to remind myself what it was about this particular story I find so compelling.

Northern Lights coverNorthern Lights is the first book of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. It begins in a world similar to our own when eleven-year-old Lyra Belacqua and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, sneak into the Retiring Room of Jordan College, Oxford, and learn of a plot to kill her uncle, Lord Asriel, and of a mysterious substance called Dust, which he believes can be harnessed to reach the city that shimmers in the sky behind the Northern Lights.

Soon after, Lyra is sent away from Jordan to live with Mrs Coutler, whose outward charm masks many secrets. When Lyra’s former playmates begin to go missing, Lyra suspects Mrs Coutler and Dust are somehow involved. She runs away and, with a truth-telling alethiometer to guide her, joins a team of Gyptians, an American aeronaut and an exiled armoured bear on an expedition to the north to find the stolen children and save Lord Asriel.

In Northern Lights science and imagination work together to throw well-aimed criticism at the Christian church and the power it wields. In Lyra’s world, the church controls the universities and philosophical and scientific research cannot go forward without its blessing. Dust, which only begins to settle on a person when they reach puberty and their dæmon loses the ability to change form, is physical proof of original sin. More than that, Dust is knowledge, and terrifically powerful stuff—literally opening doorways into other worlds. Researchers compete to understand how Dust works, and more importantly, how to control it. Through the experiments conducted on the abducted children Pullman gives a horrifying glimpse into what lifelong purity and innocence might look like and what it would cost. Reading Northern Lights for the first time at fourteen, a lot of this went over my head, but enough got through to make me start examining the relationship between knowledge and power. More than that, it helped me expand my understanding of stories from being merely a form of entertainment, to being tools for provocation and launchpads for philosophical discussion.

Philosophising aside, unlike much of the glut of dystopian narratives currently crowding the YA market, Northern Lights is, at its heart, a bloody good adventure story. Lyra travels by boat, sled, bear and hot air balloon across a wild and deadly landscape of snow and ice. And her quest is an epic one peopled with a fantastic cast remoulded from ancient myths and folk tales: silk-clad witches shooting arrows from their cloud pine perches in the sky; armoured bears for hire, skilled in metalwork and war; dæmons who embody their human’s soul in animal form. The story moves at a cracking pace, beautifully detailed without a word wasted, and even knowing the twists and turns by heart, the suspense still had me holding my breath.

Then there is Lyra herself. Both precocious and savage she is one of my all time favourite characters—a true queen among heroes. She calls out to adventure long before it calls to her (unlike so many YA fantasy heroes who spend much of their stories dragging their feet and wallowing in self-pity at the burden laid upon them), and she’s fiercely curious, stubborn and full of self-importance—a total brat you can’t help but love. Also, she doesn’t set out to save the world; she just wants to get her playmates back, free her uncle and maybe learn a little about Dust along the way, and for her this is more important than fulfilling any prophecy.

Rereading Northern Lights, I found it not only stands the test of time (side note: how awful is it to reread a childhood favourite and find it’s lost its magic?),  but it does so for being a smart, well-crafted story, beautifully told and brimming with complex, memorable characters.

If you haven’t read Northern Lights, you should totally do that. If you have and, like me, you loved it. You might also enjoy these:

The_Subtle_Knife The_Amber_Spyglass_Book_Cover The End of Mr Y
The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, Book 2) by Philip Pullman The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, Book 3) by Philip Pullman The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Obernewtyn Annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeer
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke Obernewtyn (The Obernewtyn Chronicles, Book One) by Isobelle Carmody Annihilation (The Southern Reach trilogy, Book One) by Jeff VanderMeer

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