Northern Lights

I have always encouraged the boys to read (which is not difficult) and now we appear to have come full circle, with the boys encouraging me to read (again, not difficult). Specifically, Macsen told me that I would really enjoy Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass in some regions), the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

He wasn’t wrong. The book is superb.

Obviously this novel, and the series of which it is part, is very much aimed at a teenage audience. But there is so much depth and detail to Pullman’s world that it really does draw you in.

Set in a world slightly parallel to our own, the book centres on Lyra, an orphan growing up in Jordan College, Oxford under the slightly unfocused guardianship of the college master. Plots are afoot, though, and Lyra finds herself on a journey over the course of which she learns about herself, her parents and the world in which she lives.

There is a great deal to like here. The characterisation is consistently solid and the world depicted is deep, complete and fascinating. By setting the story on an Earth that is almost, but not quite, like our own, Pullman manages to create an environment that is both familiar and strange, and one that never leaves you floundering. For someone who had never read a fantasy novel before, this book would probably be a very good place to start.

Northern Lights is also a book that works on multiple levels. On one hand, much of the plot revolves around a chase through increasingly mysterious lands which, even with the darkness of the ending, will appeal to any teenager. However, embedded in the world-building and in the motivations of the various characters is a deeper exploration of the way in which religion — when given too much power — both corrupts and harms those who fall under its influence.

I will certainly be reading the next novel in this series (just as soon as Macsen has finished with it) and I sincerely hope that we will see more of the panserbjørne, who must go down as one of the most spectacularly awesome fantasy races ever conceived.

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