Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman

>> Monday, October 15, 2012

TITLE: Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass in the US)
AUTHOR: Philip Pullman

PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Scholastic

SETTING: 19th century alternate Europe
TYPE: YA Fantasy
SERIES: Starts a trilogy

In a landmark epic of fantasy and storytelling, Philip Pullman invites readers into a world as convincing and thoroughly realized as Narnia, Earthsea, or Redwall. Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford's Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors.

First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her.

In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing -victims of so-called "Gobblers"- and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person's inner being.

And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.
I tried to read this in paper a few years ago, but lost interest and gave up after a couple of chapters. It was therefore the perfect candidate for my second-ever audiobook, a nice test to see if audio might help with some hard-to-get-into books. In this case, it did. I quickly got caught up in the story, and the story of Lyra Belacqua's adventures helped pass several hours on the treadmill.

Lyra lives amongst the scholars in Jordan College, in Oxford, in an alternative version of Victorian England, one in which people have companions called daemons (I had to look up the spelling, the one problem with audiobooks!) which take animal forms and are a sort of extension of their souls. It's also a version of the world in which strange creatures abound and experimental theology is an influential field.

The setup of the story is that children all over the country are disappearing, including a friend of Lyra's. When she's taken away from the College to be educated by the mysterious and clearly powerful Mrs. Coulter, Lyra can't help but realising something very wrong is happening to the children, and that Mrs. Coulter is clearly involved.

I really enjoyed Lyra's adventures. She's brave and clever, all the while still being very much a child. The action is non-stop, and Lyra meets really fascinating characters along the way. what I liked best about it, though, is that while I'm sure it works fine as a children's book, it's not just a simple adventure story.

This is a non-melodramatic battle of Good vs. Evil, and there's a very clear moral core here, and Pullman explores some very big questions about the soul and original sin, not to mention parallel universes! It's got many layers, but it's done in such a way that no matter at which layer you stop, the story is still a good and satisfying one.

On the audiobook itself, it was great. As far as I can tell (since I got it from my library and the cover looks different), it's this one, the BBC Radio 4 full-cast dramatisation. The way it works is that Pullman himself narrates all the non-dialogue bits, and the different lines of dialogue are read by actors. Very different to my first, Elizabeth Peters' The Snake, The Crocodile And The Dog, where the amazing Barbara Rosenblat does the voices for all characters, but I thought both worked wonderfully.

Onto The Subtle Knife, as soon as whoever's listening to it checks it back in!



Marg 15 October 2012 at 12:22  

I read this years ago and really loved it. Then I read the second and wasn't anywhere near as enthralled, so much so that years later I still haven't even started the third book!

Rosario 16 October 2012 at 16:43  

Uh-oh! Suddenly I'm a little less excited about reading the second one!

Darlynne,  25 October 2012 at 22:41  

Rosario, I still think the second book is worthwhile, although I'm relying on my sense of it rather than my actual memory, and I do not recall being disappointed at all. The same for the third. If you can get the audio book from the library, I think/hope it will work for you.

Rosario 26 October 2012 at 07:09  

Darlynne: Thanks! They've got it in their download library, so it'll be easy enough to at least try it.

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