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Northern Lights (His Dark Materials 10th Anniversary Editions) Paperback – 23 Oct 1998
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Lyra's life is already sufficiently interesting for a novel before she eavesdrops on a presentation by her uncle Lord Asriel to his colleagues in the Jordan College faculty, Oxford. The college, famed for its leadership in experimental theology, is funding Lord Asriel's research into the heretical possibility of the existence of worlds unlike Lyra's own, where everyone is born with a familiar animal companion, magic of a kind works, the Tartars are threatening to overrun Muscovy, and the Pope is a puritanical Protestant. Set in an England familiar and strange, Philip Pullman's lively, taut story is a must-read and re-read for fantasy lovers of all ages. The world-building is outstanding, from the subtle hints of the 1898 Tokay to odd quirks of language to the panserbjorne, while determined, clever Lyra is strongly reminiscent of Joan Aiken's Dido Twite.
In this first part of the "Dark Materials" trilogy, Lyra's friend Roger disappears. She and her daemon, Pantalaimon, determine to find him. Their quest leads them to the bleak splendour of the North where a team of scientists are conducting unspeakably horrible experiments.
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If I try to put myself into the place of that target audience I see that Philip Pullman does not talk down to it. There are aspects of the book which it would require a rather bright young person to enjoy. Notably, the vocabulary can be testing: in J.K.Rowlings' Harry Potter books it is quite clear which words are invented by the author; in Pullman's it is, intentionally, not: he is after all concerned with creating a world which resembles but is different from the world we live in, so that would apply to the language also. A youngster (or an adult, for that matter) who would want to look up in a dictionary the meaning of unusual words might be quite frustrated: he or she would find the word `chthonic' there, but not the words `anbaric', `cahuchuc', `coal-spirit'. (These all occur within four pages).
In this first volume of the trilogy, there is as yet relatively little discussion of philosophical issues. Near the end there is a brief discussion of Free Will; there an important re-telling of the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; and the story's famous hostility to the Church comes into focus about 25 pages from the end.
I cannot understand the mysterious connection in the book between Original Sin, Dust (particles that are supposed to come from another world and cling especially to adults), the quest to find the source of Dust in that other world, daemons, and the Church sponsoring cruel experiments in separating children from their daemons - and I see that scholars have produced the most complex guesses of what was actually in Pullman's mind. A teenage reader will surely be equally perplexed, but may be carried over these difficulties by the sheer impetus of the story. I gather that philosophical issues will become increasingly important in the succeeding two volumes in which the characters have actually crossed over into another universe, and maybe I would then become more enlightened about the puzzles presented in this one - but this book has not gripped me, as an adult, sufficiently to want to read the sequels. Shame on me?
I highly recommend it!
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- the compass will show the way...
Northern Lights is one of those books that beeps on your radar whenever you see it.Read more