Northern Lights Book Review.
The Sheer Scale Of This Book, The Ideas Within It And The Many Different Ways In Which It Can Be Read Are The Reasons That This Scores So Highly.
Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Now this is an interesting book. Source of controversy, lauded by many, banned and reviled by others. Northern Lights is a book that successfully and with ease bridges the gap between children’s fiction and adult. On the one hand, this is a story of a courageous child, rebellious, strong and determined. She goes on a fantastical journey of self discovery, there are talking animals and everything is a little bit magic. Witches, talking bears, truth meters. Marvellous. On the other hand, it also manages to be a blistering attack on the church, organised religion and attitudes within the church, and attitudes towards women. This is the beginning of a tale that has many layers, how deep you go is entirely up to you.
I first got this when I was eleven. It was an Easter present. The cover of my book has a girl holding a compass and a bear. I was the same age as the protagonist, Lyra, and I thought it looked interesting. I got through the first chapter, and then got bored. Something else grabbed my attention, and I left Lyra and her daemon alone for another time. This, from speaking to my friends is not uncommon. With Northern Lights they have picked it up, some drawn in by the praise, other by the intriguing new covers, and struggled to get past the first chapter. That is partly my reason for reviewing this, to encourage them, and anyone else who struggled to get into this to have another crack.
The reader is thrown headfirst into Lyra’s world, and it is both disorientating and wonderful. Lyra, an eleven year old with parents that are currently unknown to her and elsewhere, who very much knows her own mind, lives in Oxford, in Jordan College. But it is not the Oxford that you expect. Lyra lives in a world of academia and naphtha lamps. Anbaric power is used and airships soar in the sky. The subtle differences are enough to cause confusion, and the fact that Lyra has a daemon, a visible animal extension of her soul that can shape shift, plonks this firmly into fantasy territory.
Lord Asriel, a prominent figure within the college and Lyra’s uncle, is back from a journey to the far north, and he has tales of something called Dust. Not regular dust that belongs in the bin, but Dust that could signify that there are other worlds. Dust that the church considers to be dangerous, heretical. And in this world, the church, or the Magisterium as it is known, controls all. This is all a secret, known to the Scholars of the college but Lyra, who has snuck into the Retiring Room, hidden in a wardrobe and seen a decanter of tokay poisoned, prevented her uncle from drinking it, ends up being pulled into this strange world of adults and artic exploration when her friend Roger goes missing. There has been talk among the children in Oxford for some time about ‘Gobblers’, mysterious beings who snatch children off the streets, take them away and perform experiments on them. The truth of this is what Lyra sets out to seek after Roger goes missing. She meets the terrifying and beautiful Mrs Coulter, discovers what the ‘Gobblers’ do to the children and her world changes irrevocably.
Now, I’m not going to lie. This is not the easiest book to get into, as evidenced by my issues, though I was only eleven when I first tried. But persevere after the first couple of chapters and you will get pulled into this magnificently detailed world. Lyra is a likeable protagonist, she is very well written, although she often seems older than her stated eleven years. In my head, she comes across as about fourteen, it is only when she reacts like a child on a few occasions that you are reminded how young she is. She is headstrong and you may well find yourself wincing at several of her decisions, but they are part of who she is. Pantalaimon, more commonly known as Pan, is Lyra’s daemon. He is not really her conscience as you may think at first, he is an extension of her. Speaking to him, bouncing ideas off him does help Lyra rein in some of her wilder ideas, but he is not there to guide her down a certain path, he is intrinsically a part of her.
Mrs Coulter is a marvellous character, one that I despise and adore simply for her venom and ability to manipulate those around her. She is dangerous, wonderful and liable to bring the world down around your ears without you even noticing. It is difficult to say too much about her without giving away the novel. Safe to say, she is important. And I wouldn’t trust her as far as I can throw her.
The sheer scale of this book, the ideas within it and the many different ways in which it can be read are the reason that this scores so highly. You don’t have to read it as a criticism of organised religion, an exploration of what it means to be human and have a soul. But these depths are there if you look. I really enjoyed this, I loved the whole trilogy, even if the final third went a little peculiar towards the end. For their bravery, for looking at the world in a new way, this deserves 9/10. It is not easy to get into, the first couple of chapters are somewhat dry, and there is no explanation of the world that you find yourself in alongside Lyra. Here, you have to use your brain a little to gain entry to the world, make some assumptions and listen to the nuances of the characters that you are introduced to. But it really is worth it.
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