Newest Review: ... but also full of fierce loyalty to her friends, which makes her highly likable. Lord Asriel is researching Dust, a celestial phe... more
Is she bold and brave or just a pawn of destiny?
Northern Lights - Philip Pullman
Member Name: brokenangel
Northern Lights - Philip Pullman
Date: 25/05/09, updated on 05/12/13 (81 review reads)
Advantages: Engaging characters; cleverly created world; interesting plot
Disadvantages: Sense of destiny could slightly undermine sense of heroine's bravery
Lyra Belacqua is a delightful child to follow: carefree, determined, inquisitive, arrogant in the way most children are, which is simply un-dented confidence, and possessed of a conscience. It is genuinely enjoyable to read about her as she rejects the wisdom of authority figures and sets her heart on finding out about real truths, rather than the history and theology that the scholars strive to teach her. In this sense, she reminds me very much of often 'rebellious' modern children hunched over school desks, learning about ideas and events which are largely meaningless to them, while struggling to make sense of the world that surrounds them today. Despite being fictional, she comes across as being very realistic in her manner and approach to life.
The heroine's home town, Oxford, is depicted in a similarly enjoyable way: although some details are evidently changed, it is recognisably Oxford and will doubtless add a certain joy for those who are familiar with the town and can picture the story unfolding with that sense of accuracy and vision which using real places allows.
You may be beginning to wonder where the fantastical elements arise in this story. Lyra may almost breathe humanity and live in a recognisable physical location, but she also possesses a daemon - as does everyone else in her world. Daemons are souls which live outside the body and there is a whole social etiquette surrounding them which is at once interesting but also important to illuminating character. Children's daemons change to reflect how they are feeling, but adults' daemons are fixed in a particular animal form, allowing a unique insight into characters personalities - very useful when you're trying to decide who to trust! Lyra's own daemon, Pantalaimon, changes frequently and sometimes rapidly as he seeks to hide with her, protect her or scold her. Pullman describes these shifts briefly but tellingly to suggest nuances in social situations as Lyra's life begins to change in unanticipated ways.
Wild Lyra has enjoyed living in Oxford with the Jordan scholars - who, of course, are the best scholars in the World - even though she has no parents and few friends. She spends her time escaping lessons and exploring with Pantalaimon, but ripples are being created that will lead to devastation in her world, and Lyra is, unknowingly, a vital component of an immense plan that will change her world forever. A sense of drama is immediately created in the opening chapter when Lyra witnesses an attempt to poison the only relative she seems to have, the forceful and much-feared Lord Asriel, and hears about a strange material which seems to distress the scholars. Soon afterwards she finds herself travelling North on an epic mission to save her friend Roger from the mysterious Gobblers and discover the true meaning of 'Dust'.
As this brief overview shows, there is a lot happening in the story, but Lyra's journey and sense of purpose is always clear. The characters she meets along the way are often strange but fit perfectly within the fictional world Pullman creates. There is somehow a very matter of fact tone which allows a war between bear kings, for example, to be perfectly dramatised. Part of the delight comes from meeting strange characters and learning about the details of their cultures and lives, but Pullman never allows this to detract from the story he is telling us. Key details are interspersed when necessary, or integrated into a story within the story. Gradually, the action moves towards a final, dramatic conclusion in which Lyra realises that she has been drawn into making a terrible mistake...
Of course, this is the first in a trilogy so although the ending has plenty of resolutions, it also leaves a door open to the next in the sequence and you would be unlikely to read this as a stand-alone book. It is also worth noting that Lyra's "mistake" is actually part of her "fate" and this element of the story is stressed at the start by the master of Jordan College. If you are someone who believes in free will rather than destiny, then this recurring theme could exasperate you - especially since Lyra is simultaneously depicted as a bit of a wild child and a young girl who is predestined to act in certain ways to bring about the final outcomes.
The trilogy as a whole has endured some stiff criticism from certain quarters for being 'anti-religious' and working almost in opposition to C. S. Lewis' 'Narnia' series, which Pullman has openly criticised. However, as with many stories, they only work as allegories if you are prepared to think through the comparisons and their symbolism or significance, and only work as propaganda if you are already willing to be swayed or confirmed in your opinions. I read 'Narnia' as a child without becoming devoutly religious and I anticipate being able to read 'His Dark Materials' without becoming overtly anti-religious! It is possible to read and enjoy the story without being disturbed by ideological interpretations, as I'm sure many young readers will do. Anyway, the religious undertones become more explicit in the later novels and do not really affect the story much in 'Northern Lights'.
Overall, this is an engaging and enjoyable read. The characters are engaging and well-written, the action is broken into readable chapters and the similarities between this world and our own will have you eager to discover the differences. If you think you might enjoy it, I advise you to have the sequel lined up, as you will surely want to follow Lyra as her journey enters a new dimension...
Summary: An engaging myth of other worlds and bravery