Review: NORTHERN LIGHTS by Philip Pullman

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

I don’t give many five star reviews, but NORTHERN LIGHTS is a genuine masterpiece in imagination and storytelling. It’s the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy and tells the story of Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon. When their best friend Roger goes missing, presumed kidnapped by a sinister organisation known as the Gobblers, Lyra and Pan set out to find him and bring him home. Their journey takes them to the far reaches of the north, where witches rule the sky, armoured bears patrol the frozen wastes and where secrets are set to be revealed that will change the world forever. I’m gonna find it difficult to be coherent about how much I adore this book folks, so bear with me while I try to collect my thoughts.

I first read Northern Lights as a kid – it was actually the first proper novel I ever read on my own and (along with The Hobbit) is largely responsible for kickstarting my love of reading. The adventure, the excitement, the sheer imagination and beauty of it opened me up to a world I didn’t know could exist so vividly in my mind. And because of this, I was a bit nervous about reading it again, especially as I re-read Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books earlier this year and was a bit disappointed by them, despite enjoying them as a youngster. My trepidation couldn’t have been more misplaced. This was, and remains, one of my absolute favourite books ever written.

The first thing to mention is that it’s ostensibly a book aimed at children, but Pullman never patronises his audience or dumbs down the very sophisticated themes he deals with in Northern Lights. And honestly, while I loved it as a kid, I actually felt it improved with the re-read. Because Northern Lights deals with some very complex themes, like growing up; discovering who you are and your place in the world; the oppressive nature of institutionalised religion. These themes become more pronounced as the series progresses and it’s wonderful just how much Pullman trusts his young audience to parse them.

What I truly love about this book though is the sheer scale of imagination. You might have read the opening paragraph of this review and thought “What the hell is a daemon?”. Daemons are central to this book and they drive its central narrative. Every human has a daemon, an animal companion who is essentially an extension of themselves, a piece of their soul made physical. The bond between human and daemon is sacred, unbreakable, the very embodiment of a soulmate. The daemons of children can shapeshift, turning into any animal they wish; there’s a wonderful little scene where Lyra and her gang fight with some local ruffians and Pantalaimon transforms into a miniature dragon in a display of belligerent ferocity. As children grow older though, their daemons stop changing shape and ‘settle’ into a permanent form and what a person’s daemon settles as can be a remarkable indication of their character.

This first book spends a lot of time showing us the deep bond that exists between human and daemon and how it’s affected by a mysterious substance called ‘Dust’, while hinting at wider forces at play in the universe that affect children and their daemons as they grow up and become young adults. Always present in the background of Northern Lights is this concept of Dust, with a capital ‘D’. Lyra is fascinated by Dust, as are many other, very powerful people in Lyra’s world and beyond. Lyra’s uncle, the influential Lord Asriel, also travels to the north to conduct experiments into the nature of Dust and its properties. The Christian church of Lyra’s world, a pervasive and powerful organisation known as The Magisterium, is also very interested in Dust and is not pleased with Asriel’s experiments. The forces at play all seem far beyond Lyra, but as she becomes more entangled in this web of power, conspiracy and deceit, she becomes more and more central to the direction of events and, through her actions, has a dramatic effect on how everything unfolds. But that’s largely for the next book. Suffice to say that, with the creation of Dust, Pullman lays the groundwork for a deeply inter-connected and incredibly imaginative storyline that is set in motion here and plays out much more intensely in the rest of the series.

Connected with all this is the breathtaking worldbuilding of this book. It takes place in a secondary world that is similar to our own in many ways, but noticeably different in others. The detail is exquisite, right down to little linguistic idiosyncrasies; instead of electricity, Lyra’s world has anbaric power; instead of paraffin they have naptha lamps; and, in a world so utterly dominated by the Magisterium, there are no scientists, only tightly-controlled experimental theologians. None of this is overtly explained, it’s left to the reader to pick up through context alone and it’s just delightful to read.

The world Lyra inhabits is fantastical and the different people and societies that inhabit it are also a delight; they just burst out of the page and into my imagination with such clarity and vivid detail that despite how fantastical it is, I became so immersed in this world that for long periods of time I felt like I was living in it. The fierce loyalty and kinship of John Faa, Ma Costa and the Gyptians; the detached yet compassionate and responsible attitude of Serafina Pekkala and the witches; the powerful and altogether non-human society of the armoured bears. All of this worldbuilding is delivered with such ease and skill through the eyes and experiences of the characters. I can’t fault it. Not one bit. It’s just magical.

And the characters are just as incredible as any other part of the story. Relationships are a central theme of the book. Romantic love. Platonic love. The pain of separation and the bonds of friendship that span time and distance. All of this is explored, but never explicitly or clumsily hammered out, it’s just a part of the experience of the characters and the journey they undertake.

And finally, I can’t end this review without an explicit mention of my boy Iorek Byrnison who is, without doubt, my favourite character in all of fiction. Iorek is an armoured polar bear, outcast by his society and at a very low point in his life when we first encounter him. He is noble, powerful and, despite the alien and distinctly non-human outlook of the bears, strikes up a powerful friendship with Lyra. Their relationship is wonderful and pure and the love they feel for one another really makes me tear up.

I feel like there’s a million and one more things I could say about this book, but this is already getting on to be one of my longer reviews and honestly, I’d much prefer you go and read this truly magical book instead. The imagination, the worldbuilding, the characters and their relationships with each other, it all comes together so, so perfectly. I just want everyone to experience this world and these characters. If you haven’t read NORTHERN LIGHTS before, please please do, and I hope it’s as much of life-changing experience for you as it was for me.

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3 thoughts on “Review: NORTHERN LIGHTS by Philip Pullman

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      1. No, haven’t seen any of the TV series yet. We don’t watch any TV at home (we’re hardly ever in!), but we do buy stuff on DVD if we hear good things about it, so I’ll wait and get to it that way. Have been reading your comments about it on Twitter.


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