Review: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials #1)

IMG_7472[1]I think most readers have some kind of guilty secret when it comes to a certain book that they still haven’t read. Quite often these appear to be books which have stood the test of time and have become classics in their own right; Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are just a few which we’ve heard uttered in ashamed whispers again and again. The truth is we should never feel guilty as readers for not having yet read something; the world is full of amazing books and it’s up to each individual to decide what they want to read.

Even so, there are certain books where I can at least feel the weight of their covers burning more fiercely into my eyes then many others. Without a doubt, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is one such example of three books which I can’t help but feel guilty for not having read before now. It’s one of those series which has defined the childhood of so many readers, a trilogy which appears again and again on various best books lists, yet I’ve never read any of them! I did once borrow them from the library when I was fairly young, but after reading a few pages and feeling pretty confused by the plot, I put the books down, never to pick them up again. That is, however, until now!

I’m not going to give a detailed summary of the book, as I’m almost certain most reader will already be familiar with it in some form. What I will say is that it is set in a similar yet different world to our own, and follows a young girl names Lyra Belacqua. In this world people have their own ‘daemons’, which are essentially their souls which exist naturally outside the body in the form of talking animals. When Lyra’s friend, along with many other children, go missing, she travel to the Arctic in search of him, desperate to save him from the mysterious people who are searching for a substance called ‘Dust’.

I loved the opening of this first novel. I immediately felt as if I were in cahoots with our young protagonist, working in parallel with her as strange things begin to take place and she discovers that a dark business is underfoot. We’re introduced to our main character who is snarky and brave, yet someone who can also tell lies and get scared. Although she is able to do the right thing, she is real and relatable as a human being. This is a great technique on the author’s part and one which I think makes this book resonate so well with young readers.

Indeed, the characterisation in general is superb throughout. We are given a cast of remarkable and more importantly memorable characters who are extremely easy to feel both love and hate for. Each person is unique in their own way, something which I think is crucial in a children’s fantasy as detailed as this. Whilst they all have their own personalities and character traits which we come to understand, the author also uses techniques such as different dialects to truly make them solid and real. From the upper class, well educated speech of the scholars, to the far more colloquial slang like terms of the gyptians; each person is well crafted and vibrant in their creation. I thought the villains in particular were remarkably well constructed, providing a suitable outlet for children to vent their loathing towards in their desire to see Lyra triumph against the adults.

When I initially began reading this infamous series I was pleasantly surprised by how complex the world building is from the get go. We’re given a world which is similar to our own, yet with both subtle and major differences. Readers can feel at home in a familiar setting, whilst also being excited by that which is strange and exotic. At one point early on there is a meeting between a group of scholars in which a lot of other institutions and groups are mentioned, with the start of the mysteries hinted at throughout their talk and actions. I did wonder how a child might fare in comparison when reading this, as even I struggled at some points to keep the details of the new things in my head and keep up with the ideas which were freely flowing. I do think this detail does add an extra level which adults can enjoy, as well as the rest of the novel steadily making sense of the plot as we read on for younger children.

If the characters and world building are fantastic, then the plot itself is equally as commendable. The imagination within this book sparks from practically every page, engaging readers of all ages. Even at 23 I was reading this book enthralled by the events which take place, held in wonder at what could happen next. Every scene and action moves fluidly from one aspect of the plot to the next, creating this grand fantastical world along the way. From the wintry backdrops of the Arctic and the magic of the northern lights, to flying witches and armoured bears; there is something for everyone within this book, and a constant stream of energy and activity to keep you on your toes. I especially loved the strange mixture of things which seemed quite anachronistic. We have things which we know of in our world, but seem out of place either for us today, or for the world in which Lyra lives, including the like of Zeppelins and hot air balloons as travel methods in the furthest north.  The author has crammed a significant amount into this relatively compact book, and the novel is all the better for it.

If there was one thing which I was slightly conscious of when reading this, it was that I occasionally found some of the conversations to be quite stilted, almost as if I could see the author bending the characters to his will. Likewise, a lot of the characters, especially the adults, seem to accept a lot of strange and new things at face value, never really questioning them. I suppose this is a trope within children’s book, a device to allow the imagination free reign, but sometimes I wanted a bit more of a response, for someone to question something more fiercely. I certainly think anything similar is understandable in Lyra’s case, as her character is so well established as a rebellious, quite brave girl, that we do not really question her reactions.

Perhaps the biggest thing I discovered when reading this novel was just how adaptable it is for all ages groups, holding this weird liminal space in literature between children’s and adult fiction, much like the Harry Potter series. The plot and the writing are sophisticated in nature and never feel too immature for an older reader, yet they are strong enough to sustain the interest of a child. I especially loved how many allusions I noticed within this book to other topics, especially with religion and the control it exerts, as well as the idea of original sin and the soul.

How has it taken me this long to delve into Lyra’s world? I only wish I had let myself be part of such an imaginative, delicious world a long time ago. This is the perfect example of the ever rare blend of fantastic writing, plot and characters, which make a book like this so durable across the ages. I now completely understand the fierce love held in so many reader’s hearts for this series.

Publisher: Everyman’s Library

Rating: 4*/5*

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