Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass as it is known in America) is really a book that needs no introduction. It was first published in 1995 and forms the first part of Philip Pullman’s epic His Dark Materials trilogy. The novel is followed by The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000). It has since been adapted into many formats, including a film and graphic novel, and a companion series has recently been announced with the first title due for publication at the end of this year.
Since the death of her parents, Lyra Belacqua has been raised at Jordan College and is content roaming the roof tops and fighting the travelling Gyptian kids with her friend, Roger, and daemon companion, Pantalaimon. However, nothing can last forever. Roger mysteriously disappears one evening and, shortly afterwards, a beautiful woman named Mrs Coulter expresses an interest in adopting Lyra. Although worried about her friend, Lyra is excited to live with such a beautiful and intelligent woman. However, the Master of Jordan expresses concern about Mrs Coulter’s intentions. He gifts Lyra a rare truth telling device called the alethiometer and makes her swear to never show it to her new guardian.
The longer that Lyra spends in Mrs Coulter’s home, the more that she realises that the woman isn’t as kind as she first seemed. When Lyra discovers that she is directly linked to the Gobblers – a group of kidnappers who may be responsible for Roger’s abduction – she runs away and sets off on a journey of her own. Her goal is to save Roger and then head North in search of her Uncle Asriel – a prisoner of the panserbjørne – and deliver the alethiometer to him.
However, Lyra’s journey is filled with danger. Armoured bears, warring witch clans, and the terrible secret behind the Gobblers all stand between her and her goal. Most mysterious all is the nature of Dust, unexplained particles that drift down from the Northern Lights and stick to adults. Is it true that they pour from a parallel world? And if so, what are Lord Asriel’s plans for it?
Northern Lights is one of those novels that I never intended to review, because what can I say about it that hasn’t already been said? However, the exciting news about Philip Pullman’s upcoming series inspired me to pick these up again. The first thing that I find amazing about these books is just how many people compare them to Harry Potter. This is really unfair and could lead to some serious disappointment if you decide to read them on this basis alone. Despite the novel’s young protagonist and accessible writing style, the only thing it really has in common with Rowling’s series is that they’re both fantasy stories.
His Dark Materials is an incredibly complex series. Though the basic story is pretty easy to grasp, it also carries deep political and theological themes that may go over the heads of some younger readers. Throughout the novel, there are many scenes in which characters discuss things like the nature of fate, loss of innocence, organised religion, and the abuse of power. While you don’t necessarily need to pick up on all these themes to enjoy the story, it does help add to the reader’s enjoyment if you can appreciate them. Because of this, I’d probably recommend it more to older teens as I think that they’d get the most out of it.
The very best thing in Northern Lights is its world building. This is, frankly, amazing. Lyra’s world is similar to our own in many ways and thus is quite easy to grasp, yet it’s where it differs that makes it truly memorable. It is a world where sentient polar bears control the frozen north, witches govern the skies, and families of travellers (the Gyptians) are masters of the waterways. A world where parallel realities can sometimes be glimpsed within the Northern Lights and every human has an animal “companion” – an extension of themselves that changes shape throughout a person’s childhood before settling on their true form. Its brilliant and unique, making exploring Lyra’s Oxford and beyond a true joy. However, I do have an issue with the pacing of the story’s opening chapters.
As the descriptions of Lyra’s world are so dense, the first few chapters come across as being rather slow and expository. While a lot does happen in these early chapters, its mainly just in the dialogue. Characters discuss things that become important later, such as the Gobblers and Dust, but there’s not a lot of action. The story doesn’t feel as though it’s really moving until Lyra leaves for the North, and at this point it becomes difficult to put down.
Once the novel starts to pick up pace, it fortunately never loses it again. Lyra’s adventure is tense, exciting and more than a little scary. The plot is very focused and contains a lot of original and memorable sequences, from flying on a zeppelin pulled by witches to Lyra tricking her way into the court of the armoured bear king. The only real disappointment I had with it was the ending. While it’s shocking and more than a little dark it does break off on a pretty bad cliff-hanger (which, as you know, is a real bugbear of mine). I won’t spoil anything else here, but let’s just say that very little is resolved in this book.
In terms of characterisation, the novel presents a great protagonist in the form of Lyra. Her voice always sounds genuine, filled with childlike mischievousness and petulance, and she makes up for her lack of physical power through her ability to think and lie quickly. Her relationship with her daemon, Pan, is also very sweet. Although they bicker, they clearly care for each other very much which makes some of the threats that they face together difficult to read.
However, none of the other characters receive anywhere near as much development. Many of the adult characters are, simply, evil. They do what they do because they desire power or academic acclaim, which is always a bit disappointing. Even those that are kind to Lyra – such as Iorek, Lee Scoresby and Serafina Pekkala – all feel as though they’re lacking something. They’re all very likeable and memorable characters, but don’t really feel as though they have a lot of depth. The exist to help Lyra at various stages of her journey but there wasn’t much more to them than that.
Sorry that this review is a bit short, but I don’t have much more to say. Northern Lights has some great world building and emotional moments, but it wasn’t quite as fantastic as I remembered it being. It’s slow to start, has some shallow characters, and ends on a very abrupt cliff-hanger. However, I do intend to read on with the series to see if it gets better, as I want to be totally up to date before the next book is published.
Northern Lights can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book from Amazon.co.uk