A lot of you out there have probably already ventured into Lyra’s world, as the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series was published in 1995! I have actually read Northern Lights before, as part of a course syllabus in university. However, I felt as if I didn’t get enough time to enjoy it and read it for pleasure, so I asked for a copy for Christmas. And what a beautiful copy it is!
If you haven’t heard about Northern Lights, it follows a young girl named Lyra, an orphan at Jordan college in London. But this isn’t your usual London, as this is not set in our world. In Lyra’s world, everyone has a daemon, an animal who they are connected to; if a human dies, so does their daemon, and vice versa. They can switch between various forms, before settling into one once you become an adult. Lyra’s daemon, Pan, likes to be in an ermine form for example, but changes into a bird, a wildcat and even a small dragon.
Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, seems to think it has something to do with Dust, which Lyra is intrigued by. When children start disappearing, thought to be snatched by the Gobblers, Lyra is eager to find the missing children. With the help of an alethiometer, a truth telling device, she is taken on an adventure, uncovering the truth about Dust and travelling all the way North, meeting friend and foe along the way.
The whole world in His Dark Materials has always excited me, ever since I saw The Golden Compass film when I was younger. The thought of having an animal companion with an unbreakable bond, who would follow you any where, was something I dreamed of! Philip Pullman has done an excellent job of creating an immersive world, which is so similar to ours yet so different, almost making it real and plausible. He describes each setting wonderfully, from the architecture of Jordan college to Mrs Coulter’s lavish home to the harsh cold of the North.
I loved the steampunk atmosphere too with the airships, and it’s a world which can be easily imagined with Pullman’s descriptions, my favourite in particular being his description of the Northern Lights. They’re so vivid that I never had a hard time imagining what was happening. The same could be said for the characters too.
Lyra as a protagonist works so well; she is feisty and loyal, but you never forget that she is also just a child with something great thrust upon her. Her emotions are always made aware, and though she is incredibly brave, we get to see when she feels terrified. This is often shown through Pan too, which is a great technique. However she pushes on regardless, which is what makes Lyra, Lyra.
The dialectal dialogue is a fantastic way of bringing the characters to life. You can hear Lyra’s cockney accent in your head as you read, and the Gyptians such as Ma Costa have a different voice to Lord Asriel for example. One of my favourite characters, besides Lyra and Pan, has to be Iorek Byrnison. The whole race of the armoured bears or panserbjorn are so cool and unique, just one of the fantasy elements that add to the atmosphere of this world!
It’s hard to comment on the plot when I already know it from previous reading and the films (plus the recent BBC adaptation which is excellent), but I can say that it is exciting with some great twists. What makes it so exciting is the change of scenery as Lyra travels, and the sense of danger as she is pretty much on the run. Not to mention, the Gobblers’ intentions…
Philip Pullman’s writing style is easy to read, and wonderfully descriptive as I’ve mentioned. It isn’t over-complicated as it’s worth remembering this is a children’s novel after all, and a great read for any fantasy lovers at that. What I have noticed though, not just in Northern Lights but in general with books that were written a while ago, is that there are some sentences that feel a little off to me. They will be quite basic or something I’d ask to be reworded if I was reading it in a writer’s workshop today. For example, it will be something like “Lyra went to sleep. When she woke up…”, which sounds a little too simple for me.
I’m not saying this is bad writing or makes the book un-enjoyable, it’s just interesting to see how writing has evolved to what authors write like today. There can be the flip side of being overly descriptive too! But overall, Pullman’s writing is ideal for children getting into fantasy or established fantasy fans, but also easily enjoyable to adults as well.
It was a pleasure to read Northern Lights again, and notice things I hadn’t the first time round. I’m excited to read the rest of the series as I have no idea what happens in them, and I’m hoping to get the matching covers!
If you’ve read the Northern Lights, let me know what you thought in the comments!