‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman

My rating: 3 stars

The universe of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman is similar to our own but with additional magical elements. Although the first book in His Dark Materials trilogy is set in an intriguing world where humans have daemons, I didn’t fall in love with the storytelling and the characters. It deals with complex topics, such as class issues, desire and the original sin from the Bible. Nonetheless, the writing is sometimes too simplistic and superficial. I would have probably enjoyed it far more had I read it for the first time as a child.

The protagonist of the story is Lyra, a fierce child with an adventurous spirit. She had been told that her parents were Count and Countess Belacqua and that they had both died in an aeronautical accident in the North. For that reason, she was living at Jordan College in Oxford. It was the richest college in the city and was dedicated to experimental theology. Lyra had no idea what that meant. She thought it had something to do with magic and the movements of the stars and planets.

Despite knowing that she wasn’t allowed in the Retiring Room of the college, Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, went there to see what it looked like. As she heard the Master coming, she hid inside a wardrobe. She heard him speaking with the Butler about the imminent arrival of Lord Asriel, her uncle. She believed that they were trying to poison him. Lord Asriel and the Master were both members of the Cabinet Council, an advisory body of the prime minister.

Lyra remained hidden in the wardrobe for a while, time enough for the Master and the Butler to leave the room and for Lord Asriel to enter. She prevented her uncle from drinking a glass of wine to which the Master had added a powder. Before the Scholars entered the room, Lord Asriel ordered her to go back into the wardrobe, thus she had the opportunity to hear about his expedition North. He saw the Northern Lights, the Dust and the outline of a city in another world. The Scholars decided to give him money so he could return there. After the meeting, the Master and the Librarian had a conversation in private, which Lyra didn’t witness. They believed that she had a part to play in what was about to happen.

There was some commotion in Lyra’s life at the time. Children were disappearing around the country, and one of them was her friend Roger. People believed that they were being taken by the Gobblers. The Master also decided that the time had come for her to leave Jordan College and have a teacher. She was to go with Mrs Coulter. Before she left, the Master gave her an alethiometer, one of six ever made, but he didn’t explain what it was for. She should keep it a secret. Lyra wasn’t sure about whom to trust, though. Mrs Coulter or the Master? He had tried to kill her uncle after all.

Philip Pullman created an interesting world, particularly when it comes to daemons. Daemons are animal representations of their humans’ soul and are of the opposite sex of their owners. A person should never touch another’s daemon. While their humans are children, daemons change their appearance depending on the situation, because children are still discovering who they really are. Daemons stop changing as soon as they grow up and settle. Lyra didn’t want her daemon to remain permanently the same.

Unfortunately, the characters feel underdeveloped. Except for Lyra, they don’t have a defined personality, and even her feelings could have been further explored. She made some discoveries about her past that should have had more consequences in her state of mind. Particularly after Lyra left Oxford, the book focuses too much on actions, despite feeling slow-paced at times. It almost never managed to be gripping.

The style of narration is also inconsistent. At times the story is told from Lyra’s perspective in the third person, while at others the narrator seems to be omniscient. It appears to change in order to suit the situation. Moreover, at the beginning too much information is revealed all at once without context, which is slightly confusing. The first chapters start making more sense as the truth about what was happening is gradually disclosed. The dialogues are the most engaging part, seeing that strangely many times we are told about certain events through them. There are some striking visual descriptions of the northern lights, though.

“The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer.”

Neither the plot nor the characters of Northern Lights effusively captivated me. Although the imagination put into the creation of this world is undeniable, I don’t think I’ll continue reading the rest of the series.


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