Northern Lights

“You cannot change what you are, only what you do.”

Philip Pullman

Ah, nostalgia. I read Northern Lights and the rest of the His Dark Materials trilogy endlessly when I was younger, but I’m pretty sure quite a lot of it – the metaphysical, war-in-heaven-type bits – went straight over my head. And I’ve read Paradise Lost now, a poem which, it’s now obvious, had a more than incidental influence on the books. So, it seemed a re-read was in order.

If you haven’t yet encountered the fantastical brilliance which is Northern Lights, the premise goes something like this:

In an Oxford not so different from our own, children are being taken from the streets by shadowy figures known only as Gobblers. When her friend Roger the kitchen-boy disappears, twelve-year-old Lyra of Jordan College embarks on an epic journey to the Northern Lights and beyond to find him and bring him back.

Lyra’s world is truly magical, one of massive armoured polar bears and water-gypsies and wild flying witches. It’s a world where every human has a daemon, a kind of externalised soul who takes the form of an animal, where no-one is ever truly alone; where the Church has absolute power over every aspect of life; where the shadow of a great city stands in the shimmering curtains of the Aurora. It is rich and wide and strange and beautiful and everything that a fantasy world should be, and yet it feels vividly realistic. It is, for example, nothing like Narnia, where children defeat the evil witch all on their own; Lyra has help, and lots of it, from characters whose concern for her feels convincing and touching: Iorek Byrnison the armoured bear, John Faa the gyptian-king, even the mercenary with a heart of gold Han Solo Lee Scoresby. Yet this is Lyra’s story, and the victories she achieves alone are remarkable without being contrived or forced. In her own right, she’s a kick-ass heroine: brave, quick-thinking, furious and unafraid to lie through her teeth.

In short, Northern Lights is a terrific story, fast-paced and exciting and true. It’s also astonishingly complex for a YA novel, and this is the main reason why I wanted to re-read it. There’s a lot in here that I never noticed before, about the power of religion (and not for good), about the nature of knowledge, free will, ambition, cruelty, friendship, childhood and quantum physics. It’s possibly the least patronising piece of YA I’ve read, which is why, I think, it’s made such a successful crossover book. I’m really looking forward to the next two books (but especially, it has to be said, The Amber Spyglass).

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