By Phillip Pullman RHCP Digital 2015 (Book 1st published 1995)
Children’s Fiction (*see warning)
Score: 8/10 Genre: Fantasy
Northern Lights is the first in the, His Dark Materials trilogy, followed by, The Subtle Knife and The Amber spyglass. It is set in an alternate reality where every human has an inseparable animal daemon with whom they communicate and share feelings.
Lyra has an undisciplined childhood growing up in Jordan college with old, preoccupied scholars as her guardians. When her Uncle, the formidable Lord Asriel, visits Jordan college Lyra overhears him request funds for a mysterious ‘dust’ research project that he is conducting in the cold North.
Lyra seems set to continue her carefree life until children start to disappear, including her good friend Roger. The charismatic Mrs Coulter arrives and whisks Lyra away to London, to a life of comfort and order. After hearing frightening talk about Mrs Coulter’s activities, Lyra flees her London flat and is taken in by the noble, boat -faring gyptians. She travels North with them intent on finding Lord Asriel and the missing children.
In the North Lyra encounters great dangers – crippling cold, institutions of child and daemon cruelty and warrior bears. Ultimately she exposes shocking truths about ‘dust’ and her parents.
Lyra is assisted in her adventures by the truth-telling alethiometer – a compass-like instrument given to her in secret by the Master at Jordan college.
This is a beautifully written book. The descriptions of landscapes and characters are evocative without being too lengthy or pretentious.
Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer (description of the Northern Lights).
The settings in this fantasy are the earthly landscapes of Britain and the polar regions, making it easy to visualise Lyra’s surrounds. This leaves the reader more mind space to digest the vivid character and daemon descriptions.
Crouching like the Sphinx beside him was his daemon, her beautiful spotted coat glossy with power, her tail moving lazily in the snow.
The presence of daemons adds another layer to each character, as each person’s personality is reflected in, both the type of animal, and the actions of that animal. The alethiometer as a device is less effective. There are points in the plot where it would be logical for Lyra to use the all-knowing alethiometer but it is obvious the author has chosen not to in order to heighten the suspense. The movie based on this book was named after the alethiometer and called The Golden Compass (I haven’t seen ).
*The POV character, Lyra, is eleven years old so this is classified as a children’s book, but be warned the story involves horrible cruelty to children and a brutal bear fight. Pullman is prepared to push his characters to the limit which makes for a tense read.
A writing colleague of mine found Lyra’s character to be too much of a brat in the opening chapters and consequently put the book down. I think it pays to stick with Lyra for a while as her feistiness and stubbornness prove to be necessary character traits for survival. Her early waywardness also allows room for her to grow and mature.
The other characters in, Northern Lights, are cleverly nuanced and not always what they seem. We find that the evil can be charismatic the wise, unassuming and the ferocious, loyal.
I was prepared to give this book a nine based on the beautiful writing and interesting concepts but I found the end a little convenient and rushed. I’m not a fan of sudden realisations with no lead-up. This book is not entirely stand-alone as Lyra’s quest is obviously not finished at the end. However Northern Lights can be enjoyed by itself as it does bring to a close a significant chapter in the quest.
Recommended for: 11 to 15-year-olds who are not upset by violent or sad scenes in a fantasy book or adults who enjoy reading fantasy (the language and the concepts are sophisticated enough to keep your interest).
Use for writers :
No info-dumping: Exposition is deftly sprinkled throughout the story especially in relation to the daemon concept. It would have been tempting for the author to immediately give us all the practices and limitations relating to daemons in the opening chapter, instead he only gave out information when it became pertinent to the action. Because the daemon-human relations are so fascinating and offered in easily digestible bites each revelation is eagerly anticipated. To offer concrete examples of the spacing of some of these bites of exposition :
Chp 3 – We learn children’s daemons change form but the daemons of adults do not. (although hinted at before)
Chp 5 – We learn that a humans and their daemons share each other’s pain.
Chp 9 – We learn that it is taboo to touch another person’s daemon.
Vivid descriptions: (as written above) Pullman uses all the senses in his descriptions of landscapes and people. The descriptions of the historic building and spacious grounds of Jordan college, the claustrophobic comfort of Mrs Coulter’s flat and the cold bleakness of The North transport the reader to those locations. Here, the journey north in the gyptian boat is described:
But the rush of water below, the movement in the air, the ship’s lights glowing bravely in the dark, the rumble of the engine, the smells of the salt and fish and coal-spirit, were exciting enough by themselves.
2 thoughts on “His Dark Materials Book 1: Northern Lights”
Thanks for this great review, Leigh. I think my older kids might enjoy this series.
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I have heard that from fans of the series that the movie was disappointing. But I haven’t seen ‘The Golden Compass’ maybe your girls have – that may turn them off.