Review: Northern Lights

SPOILERS AHEAD

I’ve heard so many good things about the His Dark Materials trilogy, and so many people have told me to read the books. The film The Golden Compass was my favourite when it came out, but I still didn’t read the books. For Christmas, I received The Folio Society’s editions, and Northern Lights was the last book I picked up in 2018 and the first I finished in 2019. Safe to say, it certainly lived up to my expectations.

I love Lyra. She’s feisty and intelligent and curious, everything that I want to be, essentially! I also enjoyed the moments when her childish nature shone through the text: ‘But it didn’t seem to Lyra that she would ever grow up.’ It highlights the fact that even though she is on this long journey and is part of a huge task that could change everything about her world, she is still a child at the end of the day. But that fact that she is not letting the weight of her journey crush her is what makes her one of my favourite fictional characters.

It’s not just Lyra’s characterisation that’s brilliant, though. Pullman gives each character their own dialect - the gypsy’s slang, or the educated upper class - which makes them feel more real, and they all have a range of personalities that will have you sympathising with them at least once in the novel, even if you despise them.

Saying that there is one thing that I didn’t like, and it is the tiniest of criticisms. When Lyra reunites with Ioreck just before his fight with Iofur, she calls him ‘dear’ multiple times. This could just be me, but when I was a child, the word ‘dear’ made me shudder and think of an old man addressing his wife. I can’t see Lyra using it for Ioreck, or anyone even if she grew up in a world of scholars. Again, this could just be me though, as I’m not one for pet names, especially ‘dear.’

Pullman’s style of writing draws you into the narrative. The world he has created is beautiful, even though many of the locations, such as Oxford, Lapland, and Svalbard are not fictional. However, he has transformed them into places that seem more magical and alive, in a way it saddens me that our version of these places is not filled with armored bears and witches and sacred devices like the alethiometer.

Speaking of the alethiometer, I think the idea of that alone is incredible. I would never have imagined an object that can answer your questions through symbolism. Pullman has a vivid mind, and it’s this fact alone that makes me want to read more of his works.

One scene that stood out for and still replays in my head, even while reading The Subtle Knife, is the fight between Iorek and Iofur in part three. The language Pullman uses here is beautiful:

‘Like two great masses of rock balanced on adjoining peaks and shaken loose by an earthquake.’

‘And that was when Ioreck moved. Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean, and which makes a little stir in the deep water, but which when it reaches the shallows rears itself high into the sky, terrifying the shore-dwellers, before crashing down on the land with irresistible power.’

As a writer, I struggle with fight scenes. My novel is set in the 1600s, and the weaponry and techniques were very different during this period. I can never create the right imagery, but the way Pullman has in these lines is overwhelmingly clever. The nature imagery and similes convey the power and brutality of the fights while maintaining the grace and dignity of the two bears. This technique also works well with the third person narrative, for, if the story was told in the first person, he may not have been able to use this technique as well, as Lyra would probably not have seen it this way.

I do find that this book is a bit like Harry Potter, in the sense that it’s adaptable for a wide audience. It’s a children’s book, and yet I’m reading it at 22 years old, and loving every minute of it. However, I do sometimes struggle to see how someone Lyra’s age could read this and not get confused at times, such as the conversations surrounding Dust.

It has taken me far too long to read this book; I wish I started it sooner. Pullman has created a beautiful world filled with wonder and magic, and it has left me in awe. I’ve started reading the next in the series, The Subtle Knife, and I’m already enjoying it just as much.

Also, while I was writing this, I took a quiz to see who my daemon would be. I got a golden monkey, because I’m ‘ambitious, worldly and smart’. I’d prefer to have an owl though…

Let me know which animal your daemon would be!