August 30th, 2010


August Books 35) Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman

I must have read this over a decade ago - I seem to remember buying the first two books shortly before the third came out - and it's interesting to discover which bits have stuck in the mind and which seem new. Pullman's world-building is simply superb. It's not just the places - Lyra's Oxford, the Fens, the Arctic wastes - but also the rules of the world - the most memorable and horrifying moment of the book is that point near the end of Chapter 16 when it looks as if Pantalaimon and Lyra are going to be separated, and it is a really impressive achievement to make the reader care about what happens to a child's relationship with her dæmon.

I was slightly surprised (my memory of this book having been contaminated by the third volume) that there is not much about religion here - a fair bit about the evil ecclesiastical bureaucracy, but that is not quite the same. Also, because I was looking for them, I spotted more resonances with C.S. Lewis this time. There's the Oxford setting to begin with; Mrs Coulter clearly draws from the White Witch; note also that Lyra thinks she is a magician's niece. Pullman is, however, much the better writer: none of his non-human characters are talking cuddly toys, and his world is one where horrible things routinely happen but are none the less horrible for that.

Looking forward now to rereading the other two in a couple of months.