Phillip Pullman Northern Lights Book cover. Red banner reads: Bergs book club. Berg, the teddy, rides the golden compassAuthor

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman | Berg’s Book Club

Book cover of Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

Book Title: Northern Lights
Author: Phillip Pullman
Series Name: His Dark Materials
Book No.: Book 1
Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk, Sci-fi, Teen & Young Adult, Children’s Lit.
Published: 1995
Publisher: Scholastic UK
Star Rating: ★★★★★


Introduction

Hi everyone, and welcome to Berg’s Book Club. Today, I am joined by a friend, Alex, who did the same undergraduate course as me. Alex has agreed to do a guest blog for Little Sea Bear on the first book of one of my favourite trilogies. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman.

So please welcome Alex!

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
A Book Review by Alex

People often ask me, ‘Alex, just for this totally non-arbitrary scenario which definitely isn’t secretly a set-up for a somewhat questionable payoff that could only vaguely be described as ajoke, what would you say are your three favourite things?’

At which point I say, ‘Well, obviously that would be: 1) My dog, 2) Taking long walks on the beach, and, of course, 3) Completely missing out on huge cultural phenomena.’

I remember the buzz around the film The Golden Compass when it came out ten years ago, but before then I had no prior knowledge of Philip Pullman’s epic His Dark Materials trilogy,nor of how vast and expansive its reach truly was. Later on, I also managed tosomehow mix it up with the film The Greystarring Liam Neeson…Don’t ask me how; the only justifiable explanation I haveis that they both have a lot of snow…But I digress.

Eventually, the film passed me by. And it wasn’t until ten years later when the release of La Belle Sauvage last year – volume one of Pullman’s sequel trilogy The Book of Dust – grabbed my attention. It reignited the passion of Pullman fans everywhere. So I decided, finally, to pick up the book where it all began: Northern Lights.

Even then, it wasn’t until a year later that I actually gotaround to tentatively reading (which turned into hungrily devouring) the whole His Dark Materials trilogy. And I’m justkicking myself that I didn’t get stuck in sooner.

Premise

The story of Northern Lights takes place in a universe fairly similar to ours in a lot of ways, and tremendously different in others. The main difference is that in this universe everyone has a daemon(pronounced like demon), an animalentity which serves as a visual representation of a person’s soul. When we arechildren, our daemons regularly change from one form to another, only settlingon a form when we reach puberty.

Our protagonist, a young girl called Lyra, lives in Jordan College in this world’s incarnation of Oxford. Through circumstances which I will not spoil here, she and her daemon Pantalaimon are forced to go on the run when the fringes of a sinister conspiracy totally shatter their blissful life of play and ignorance.

With the help oftheir new allies, including the sea-faring Gyptians, a Texan balloonist, and anarmoured bear, Lyra and Pan must set out on a mission to thwart the plans ofthe terrifying Mrs Coulter and her army of child-snatching Gobblers. Along theway they face perils aplenty, new and fast friends, and a whole slew ofquestions.

And why is everyoneso concerned about this mysterious substance called Dust?

Plotting

I was fairly hesitant as I began reading this book. I had heard all manner of praise which had been heaped upon not only this book, but also its two sequels. So, I knew I was on the cusp of starting something big and epic and important. Naturally I was alittle intimidated.

How muchof my time was this going to take up? Did I have the emotional energy to beswept along on something quite this epic?

To whichI can only say one thing: allow yourself to be swept

Pullman’ssense of pace and rhythm is astounding. The story manages to open up all ofthese amazing settings you just want to get lost in, yet the story never onceloses itself. We never forget why we’re here, what we’re doing, or why itmatters. The book never becomes self-indulgent in its own worldbuilding becausewe are so rooted in the story and the characters.

There’sthis absolutely gorgeous sense as you’re reading that makes you feel as thoughyou’re being read a bedtime story. Everything is at once so magical whilst alsobeing utterly gripping, from children running rampant playing through thestreets of Oxford, to the cold, stoic kingdom of the ice bears in the north.

You bothwant to delve headfirst into the world around you and also keep your eyestrained on where Pullman wants to lead you. This is no small feat for a writerto accomplish. Stories like this can easily become messy clashes betweenexcessive worldbuilding and rambling plot.

The writing is both manages to be both lyrical and tangible. This is one of the many things which made this book a delight to read.

Character

Lyra

Lyra is easily one of the most captivating and compelling protagonists I’ve come across in a while. A character who could easily have slipped into the traditional tomboy role, it’s Lyra’s journey throughout the novel, her determination and unwavering confidence even in the face of death, and her utter compassion which makes her a completely rounded character. It’s always inspiring to come across a protagonist who—besides occasionally doubting themselves—never once loses sight of what’s important to them and what kind of person they want to be.  

Pantalaimon

For the sake of this review, I’m going to count Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon as his own character. Whereas Lyra can often be It was a really fascinating experience to delve into this idea of daemon’s through the prism of Lyra and Pan’s relationship. While the bond isn’t comparable to that between a pet and its owner, it’s almost impossible not to bring that bias with you as a reader, and seeing that fierce relationship between the two and how they are both so determined to keep the other from harm is utterly heart-warming.

Mrs Coulter

And then there’s Mrs Coulter. She is easily one of my favourite villains I’ve come across recently, and I’m going to try to tell you why without spoilerising the hell out of this book and the two sequels. She practically oozes malevolence, putting on this mask of luxurious clothing and achingly graceful persona, only to reveal this utter ruthlessness lying under the surface. You want to hate this woman with every fibre of your being, and yet you can’t help but find shades of humanity in her that only serve to add more and more curiosity and dimension to her character. That’s it. That’s all I can say without ruining the whole thing. How does Pullman manage to make a character who leads a child snatching organisation complex and human? I’m afraid you’ll have to find out for yourself.  

Supporting Characters

The supporting cast is also incredibly endearing. Characters like Lee, Iorek and Serafina immediately leave an impression from their first appearances, giving us a solid base for who they are, and setting up their journey in the rest of the series. Sadly, we don’t get to see much of some of them in this book, but what little we do get really livens up the action and makes the world feel that much richer. At the end of the day, though, this is Lyra’s story first and foremost, with each member of the supporting cast serving to expand her view and understanding of this world that she thought she knew so well.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I cannot recommend thisbook highly enough. While it may seem like I’ve held back on some major detailsregarding plot and character beats, it’s only because I REALLY do not want tospoil a moment of the story for any of you. This is the kind of book that drawsyou in and absolutely engulfs you, and I challenge you not to race out and buythe two sequels (The Subtle Knife andThe Amber Spyglass) when you’refinished with this one.

If you like rhythmic prose, intriguing worlds, colourfulcasts and stories that make you feel like you’re a child again, I implore youto go out and give this book a go. 

~~Alex

Before you go

Thanks for reading Alex’s book review. And a thank you to Alex for reviewing this book. I’m a lover of Pullman’s His Dark Materials too.

If you would like to read more book reviews, I recommend La Bella Sauvage. And please don’t forget to follow us on here, on facebook or on twitter.

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