By Ellen Ryan
With 2016 thrown out the window of a speeding train, and 2017 gracing us with its presence at last, I’ve decided to be optimistic about the BBC upcoming TV adaptation of one of my favourite book series’ ever. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy is hardly a hidden masterpiece; the three books are pretty well known, especially after having received multiple adaptations already: a movie, video game, and a two-part play. The BBC themselves did a radio drama adaptation of the books back in 2003 that was hugely successful in the UK, so naturally my hopes are pretty high for how they will handle the series on TV. So, in order to prepare for the new adaptation, I decided to re-read the trilogy. If you feel like joining me for the ride, here’s my review for the first book!
Northern Lights (renamed The Golden Compass in the US due to some rather awkward misunderstandings) is the first book in Pullman’s Trilogy, and so it’s the first glimpse into both the world he’s built up and the characters.
The story follows a young girl called Lyra who has been brought up in the walls of Jordan College in Oxford, and her dæmon (a sentient animal spirit that is an extension of a human’s soul) Pantaliamon. The two find themselves on a journey led by a truth-telling device given to her by the College’s Master: an alethiometer, or Golden Compass. With a natural and rare ability to read the device without extensive studying, Lyra meets a wide cast of characters on her journey north to save her kidnapped friend Roger, one of many missing children being stolen away.
It’s one of those stories where Lyra encounters trial after trial, like stepping stones in order to reach her final goal, and each one helps her grow and learn more about the mysteries around her and the workings of the alethiometer. The book unloads mystery after mystery onto the audience, and with every answer we find another question that makes the reading experience almost constantly satisfying our curiosity, whilst leaving us still wanting more. Though the story is clearly intended for younger readers, it’s one that still appeals to an older audience, especially when you look at the story as a whole. Mixing fantasy, sci-fi, drama, and adventure into one means there’s probably at least one aspect that will appeal to all readers.
But hey, you want specifics. Or, well, I want to give specifics, so indulge me.
If you’ve taken anything from my past two reviews, I have a bit of a soft spot for well-stuffed and interesting new worlds, built up to the best of an author’s ability. Pullman does plenty of building up here, but he is saved from lengthy explanations by the fact the world is mostly pretty in-line with our own. However, it should be noted early that the world in general isn’t all that important in this series. There’s a few key differences you need to know about this world (mainly dæmons), but otherwise you can just go along reading without stumbling upon pages upon pages of historical exposition—which, I have to admit, is sometimes a nice break from books where you need to keep up with the entire world’s history and customs. (Looking at you, Game of Thrones and Pern).
That’s not to say Pullman doesn’t bother world-building, but he instead manages to slide little glimpse in here and there. Casual comments about the Magisterium or Gyptians are enough to remind us relatively consistently that the world we’re reading about is definitely in a different universe, whilst making sure we still know everything we need to know. It also keeps us just slightly distanced from the story, reminding us over and over that this isn’t quite the same world as ours. Distancing us in this way may seem either not important or even perhaps a negative aspect, but in fact it only serves to become an impressive tool when we move onto the next book… but that’s another month and another review!
The book comes from Lyra’s perspective, and whilst I’ll talk about Lyra as a character more in a little bit, what any reader can learn from the first chapter alone is that Lyra is not exactly a reliable narrator. She’s young and extremely stubborn: these traits dictate a good deal of her choices throughout the book, and seeing the plot in the hands of a rebellious 12-year-old can be thrilling for equally rebellious 12-year-olds, and a heart-attack waiting to happen for the older audience.
Within the first chapter of her hiding in a cupboard in Oxford, eavesdropping on a meeting by accident, she’s proven to be perhaps the least informed member of our main cast—and indeed, a good deal of the secondary cast are still more informed than she is. It’s only with the alethiometer that she begins to see the big picture, and even then, it can sometimes be just a little too late. At the same time though, that’s probably one of the reasons Pullman wrote the book from her perspective in the first place: she’s no more informed than the audience is at any point in the novel, and we learn things as she does, which ultimately is never sooner or later than Pullman wants us to learn it.
What also comes from Lyra’s narrative, especially in the earlier chapters of the book, is that we can only see things through the rose-tinted glasses she wears. Lyra, no matter how rebellious, is a ward of the college, privileged and well-off for the most part. She sees what she wants to see, which is only proven more when she meets the charming socialite Miss Coulter. Pullman doesn’t want us to be completely blind, however, and instead is sure to keep the reader feeling just a little bit uncomfortable with the situation. Any book that contains ‘a severed child’ in the earlier chapters is bound to reveal some darker secrets further along, and it’s slyly placed sentences like that which make the book thrilling: too small and seemingly unimportant to really stick out, but enough to give you the slightest chill as you read.
So, we have our world, we have our narrative, what about the characters? Personally, I felt the characters were extremely well written, mostly because I didn’t really like any of them as people. I admired them as interesting characters, but ultimately the majority of people we meet in Northern Lights are self-serving adults who are doing truly terrible things for their beliefs and goals, which ultimately, is what Lyra has to fight against in this first book. It’s refreshingly realistic, to be honest, and having them so easily dislikable only helps in making you route for Lyra all the more. Many of the more likeable adults don’t have as important a role: the only exceptions being Lee Scorsby—a Texan aeronaut, and quickly becomes the character who can make you smile just by being in the scene—and Iorek Byrnison—who’s not even human, but an armoured bear and winner of the ‘badass character’ title.
Lyra herself is an interesting person to have as a main character, to say the least. When we first meet her she’s not the most ideal heroine. She’s young, and thus incredibly flawed with naive and selfish thinking that causes problems for her throughout the novel. For readers, it can be infuriating to watch sometimes, but ultimately the immaturity is unavoidable, and again, refreshingly realistic to see in a book instead of wondering how a 12-year-old can be such a perfect hero saving the world. Of course, she has positive traits too, which are what carry her through her trials. She’s strong, independent, and willing to do anything to finish her quest. Even her negative traits work in her favour: her rebellious nature is what began her adventure in the first place, and her stubbornness and distrusting nature helps her fight back against the antagonists of the series.
Then again, if you only read the first book, whilst you may be more attached to Lyra at the end, you’re missing out on her real potential as a character. The true enjoyment of Lyra and her journey only really comes if you read the whole series. Ultimately, you need to watch her develop and grow, and His Dark Materials does seem to be primarily a bildungsroman, for both her and the second main character Will (who makes his appearance in the second novel). The series has many key elements, but seeing Lyra be changed and grow thanks to her adventures is by far one of the most enjoyable to watch.
If I had one criticism for the book, it’s that in a way, it serves as something of one long prologue. Again, it only truly becomes worth it if you continue the rest of the series. Northern Lights may answer many of the questions we had at the beginning of the novel, but as I said earlier, the answer to those questions tends to be more questions, and as you shut the book after the last chapter you might be left thinking: “Wait… What?” The real plot, the real adventure doesn’t start until the very end of Northern Lights: Lyra leaving to travel to another world to find the truth about Dust.
Saying that, it’s a fantastic ending, one that leaves you craving more, wanting the answers to the questions and mysteries set up so well by Pullman. Northern Lights, whether you see it as one long prologue or just the first step of the journey, is exactly what you need to pull you into Pullman’s story. It sets up the series perfectly, with just the right amount of intrigue, and ends with some of the biggest and mind-boggling revelations that you could expect from a novel like this.
Next time, I’ll jump into my favourite of the three books, The Subtle Knife.
So if you want to get into the series here’s some handy links!
If you’ve read the His Dark Materials series, or have another book/series you’d like to recommend, please send your thoughts/reviews to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading!