Review: NORTHERN LIGHTS by Philip Pullman

Book Reviews

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
MASTERPIECE

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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Hey! Watcha Readin’: 03/11/19

Updates

Happy Sunday booklings! The more discerning among you may have noticed there was no weekly update on Wednesday. That’s because my brain rebelled against the idea of weekly updates in the middle of the week – makes more sense to do it at the end right? So from now on you can look forward to a Hey! Watcha Readin’ post brightening up your Sunday afternoons. Without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading this week.

Recently Finished: STEEL CROW SAGA by Paul Krueger
I’ve been gushing about this book all week on Twitter. It’s just wonderful and makes me truly hopeful about the future of modern fantasy. Fonda Lee said it’s basically Pokemon combined with Avatar: The Last Airbender and that’s such an apt and perfect description, I hesitate to say anything more. I think Paul Krueger himself even jokingly referred to it as Full Metal Pokemist. It follows four main characters in the aftermath of an anti-colonial war. Each character is from a different nation – some were colonial oppressors, others fighters for liberation and some were both. Each of them has reason to hold long-established grudges against the others, but despite all this STEEL CROW SAGA is a story about acceptance and friendship in a troubling and hostile world, written with nuance and intelligence. I’ll put out a full review this week but honestly, don’t wait til then, just go read this book now.

Currently Reading: NORTHERN LIGHTS by Philip Pullman
THE TV SERIES LOOKS SO EFFING GOOD! I’m re-reading these books purely inspired by the release of the series and I’m so excited to re-live this story I just cant even hngggghhh! His Dark Materials was actually my first fantasy true love as a kid and was my gateway drug to the fantasy genre so they’ll always have a special place in my heart. The scale of these books is so vast that it’s not possible to distil it down for this post, but in simple terms this first book tells the story of a young girl called Lyra, who comes into possession of an alethiometer, a compass-like device that can tell anyone capable of reading it the truth about any question they ask it. What follows is an epic tale of conspiracy, betrayal and armoured freakin’ polar bears! Did I mention how excited I am for the TV series?

Next Read: THE SUBTLE KNIFE by Philip Pullman
This is the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, so I can’t discuss it much without being too spoilery. Suffice to say, if you haven’t read these books, they’re a treat. And if you don’t want to jump into them just yet, the TV adaptation of the series starts tonight and it looks stunning.

November Readalong: DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

Throughout November I’ll also be taking part in a readalong of the classic DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, the first book in the Dragonlance Chronicles. It’s hosted by Jason from Off The TBR and it’s not too late to join. Hit Jason up on Twitter @jasonats or over on his blog and he’ll add you to our Goodreads group. The more the merrier 🙂

That’s what I’ve got planned this week. Let me know what you’re reading and if you enjoyed this update follow the blog to never miss a post!

Look ahead to October

Updates

What I’m reading this month

I should have done this last week and I’ve read two books already this month, but in an attempt to organise my TBR I’m posting this with a better late than never mentality. So here’s my plan for the the rest of October. Let me know what you’re reading this month in the comments and, as always, if you have any book recommendations (especially horror right now) please please don’t be shy in letting me know 🙂

HIS DARK MATERIALS TRILOGY by Philip Pullman
I’m so excited for the TV series at the start of November that I’ll be reading NORTHERN LIGHTS, THE SUBTLE KNIFE and THE AMBER SPYGLASS this month for what I think will be the fourth time now. I used to think of The Hobbit as the book that got me into fantasy until I realised that fantasy didn’t just mean elves, goblins and wizards. It was actually this wonderful series that was my gateway to the genre and it will always have a special place in my heart. The film adaptation released as The Golden Compass in 2007 was a major disappointment for me, but the new TV series looks genuinely amazing! I got chills watching this trailer.

Whoever was in charge of casting, take a bow.

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury
I’ve added this in here because it’s a short read that has been on my TBR for years; I’m trying to work my way through some of the backlog of books I already own in an attempt to rein in my depraved urges to continue buying books I won’t get round to reading for months*.
*years

THE ROSEWATER REDEMPTION by Tade Thompson
The final instalment of the Wormwood trilogy is set for release on Monday the 15th! If you haven’t read the first two books yet I highly recommend them. Tade Thompson is breaking new ground with the alien invasion genre and this is the most genre-shattering series since The Three Body Problem. I’m running a ‘Wormwood Weekend’ this Saturday and Sunday where I’ll be dropping reviews of ROSEWATER and THE ROSEWATER INSURRECTION, so keep your eye out for that if you’re still on the fence about whether to pick these books up.

PET SEMATARY by Stephen King
It’s officially Spooky Season so it would feel wrong not to read some horror this month! I have an auntie who raised me on a steady diet of horror films as a child and I remember watching Pet Sematary when I was about ten years old and being delightfully terrified. My girlfriend also just read the book and was aggrieved to find that the used copy she bought online had the final page ripped out! Someone out there just wants to watch the world burn.

Anyway that’s what I’m planning on reading in October. There really aren’t that many new releases on the list this month, but there are so many old books I haven’t got round to yet or just want to re-read. I have a feeling November will largely be the same as I’m taking part in a readalong of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT (hosted by Jason from Off the TBR – please join us), I want to read the final two books of THE FIRST LAW trilogy and start on THE BROKEN EARTH series.

Wish me luck 😀