Saturday, 19 December 2009

Northern Lights

Early this week, I finished the fantastic Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. It is the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, touted my many as being a superior rival to the Harry Potter books. It's been on my "to-read" list for years and having been given it for my birthday I thought it was about time to actually read it. I can't believe I waited so long.

Set in a parallel universe, the plot centres on Lyra, a child who is cared for by staff at a college in Oxford. After overhearing a lecture by her Uncle, and a series of mysterious kidnappings, Lyra gets sucked into an adventure to find a missing servant boy.

The novel is populated with well drawn characters - the staid scholars of the college, the mysterious Mrs Coulter, the colourful Gyptions and a mighty armoured bear. The universe is familiar yet subtlety different with the exception of daemons; all the human characters are accompanied by an animal form (the daemon) - separate but interdependent - linked with an invisible bond.

Aside from the excellent writing - Mr Pullman scores several points over Ms Rowling in that regard - the novel is a gripping yarn. Not afraid to deal with violence and death, the story builds to a climax which simultaneously creates a bridge to the second novel. Indeed, Pullman expertly interweaves the story arc of this novel with the beginnings of the arc for the trilogy as whole.

Although nominally a Children's novel, it deals with big themes of identity, institutional (e.g. state or religious) control and philosophy. While I had some quibbles on elements of the ending, these do not distract much from my enjoyment of the story or the novel as a whole.

Is it better than Potter? While the writing is better, and the overall story arc more explicit from the outset, I wouldn't want to make a call in that regard. It's significantly different and more involved. Where Potter is escapism with dark themes throughout, this book is more about the ideas and themes themselves. You can still escape to Lyra's Oxford, though, and I recommend you do.


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