Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials Book 1

Northern Lights
Philip Pullman
  • Category:Fantasy; Children's Fiction
  • Date Read:17 February 2018
  • Pages:397 (413 with appendix)
  • Published:1995
  • Prize:Carnegie Medal 1995
  • 5 stars

Little by little, as the storm of fear subsided, she came to a sense of herself again. She was Lyra, cold and frightened by all means, but herself. I wish... she said, and stopped. There was nothing that could be gained by wishing for it. A final deep shaky breath, and she was ready to go on.

This seems to sum up Lyra for me, the carefree and courageous young girl who is the centre of this story. Lyra has been raised in an Oxford College, or rather, left mainly to raise herself as she pleases in the College. She is half-savage with limited education, but full of self-importance as the niece of a powerful member of the College and the leader of her group of children. She is drawn into a world of intrigues and dangers, suffers setbacks, and somehow always has the bravery to keep going.

Lara’s world is a wonderful place, where every human is always accompanied by their dæmon, a creature that is their soul and an extension of themselves, where long journeys can be made on zeppelins, and where armoured polar bears are intelligent creatures with opposable thumbs. Pullman has created an enchanting world in which to place this story. It’s hard to believe this is written as a children’s story, when there is just so much detail and complexity to the story. One thing I especially loved about Pullman’s world is that he never explained all the details, all the things that are different to our own world. Dæmons are there from the first page, Amharic power is mentioned early, but we get left to figure out what these things are by ourselves, showing that Pullman trusts his reader has the intelligence to figure the world out for themselves without stopping for tiresome explanations which would have weighed down the story. This is a bit different to many other children’s books I’ve read.

The story itself has plenty of action and excitement, as Lyra sets out on a journey to firstly rescue a friend who has been kidnapped, and then to free her uncle from imprisonment. Some of her adventures are terrifying, such as when she discovers what is actually being done to the kidnapped children, but Lyra determinedly sticks to her plans despite everything that happens.

I found the science of this world fascinating, a strange blend of quantum physics, theology and mysticism. There is also a controlling Magisterium who impose restrictions and controls on the scholars. Their control seems reminiscent of the Catholic Church of our world, with the inquisition a threat to any scholar who steps too far from approved research.

Highly recommended.

His Dark Materials

The Subtle Knife The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass

Chris Weitz's movie adaptation of Northern Lights, known as The Golden Compass after the Alethiometer, a watch-like object Lyra owns with the powers of prediction, starred Nicole Kidman, Daniel Graig and Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra. Despite the almost universal praise for the book, the movie had mixed critical reviews, many negative. A sequel was not filmed. However, since this review was written, the BBC released a television series based on the books in 2019, starring Dafne Keen as Lyra. The television series is worth watching and is faithful to the books.
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