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Such a captivating story: a review of ‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman

Going into this book, I was actually quite worried that it was going to be more of a childish fantasy novel considering it involves talking animals, flying witches, and an 11-year-old protagonist. However, upon finishing the book, I was actually rather impressed at how detailed the world-building was and how loveable all the characters were. My assumptions turned out to be completely wrong.

Set in a parallel universe, the book follows Lyra Belacqua and her animal ‘daemon’ Pantalaimon as they set out on an adventure to the Arctic in search for children who have been kidnapped by a group nicknamed the ‘Gobblers’.  Their trek involves sailing a ship, flying a hot air balloon, and riding on the back of armoured bears – the levels of imagination and creativity in this book were so clever that I truly felt sucked into this magical, fantastical world.

My first praise has to go to Pullman’s excellent construction of his protagonist. Lyra Belacqua is more or less raised an orphan by the scholars of Jordan College and, at the beginning of the book, lives an innocent and carefree life in Oxford. I love the streak of rebellion that Pullman adds to her character as this allows her to take many dangerous risks on her adventure, making her journey a very thrilling and exciting one. Being raised parentless, Lyra is fiercely independent and sees no reason to obey anyone – I thought this decision made her a very interesting protagonist as we see her learn and grow from her experiences travelling North.

It almost felt like reality, but it had touches of magic and make-believe added to it.

Another aspect of the book I loved was Pullman’s imaginative creation of ‘daemons’ – the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner-self that takes the form of an animal. When I first read about these, they reminded me of Patronuses from Harry Potter, except ‘daemons’ are real animals that stay with you forever. Like their humans, ‘daemons’ are capable of thinking and speaking, and I loved that Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, takes multiple forms in the book (a mouse, a bird, a snow leopard and many more).

What I particularly admired about ‘daemons’, is that Pullman describes how daemons ‘settle’ once a child has gone through puberty – this means they permanently assume the form of an animal which the person most resembles in character. Though Lyra’s ‘daemon’ does not settle in this book, I can imagine that it will eventually settle as something rebellious and adventurous in nature like a weasel or a lynx. I think I’d want my ‘daemon’ to be a cat or a bird of some kind – I love that this book gets me thinking like this.

In general, I just really loved the world Philip Pullman has created in this book and I can’t wait to learn more about it in the next two books. Because it is set in a parallel universe, many of the locations and settings felt both familiar and bizarre. In Lyra’s world ‘Svalbard’ is described very much like the Arctic – vast, cold, and mountainous. However, because this is a fantasy book, Pullman makes this place the centre of the ice bear government, and Lyra’s friend, Iorek Byrnison, becomes King of the bears there. It almost felt like reality, but it had touches of magic and make-believe added to it.

The one harsh criticism I have of Pullman’s story is actually aimed at the plot, particularly the ending. In the background of Lyra’s adventure, her uncle, Lord Asriel, has been conducting experiments with a mysterious substance known as ‘Dust’. Though I liked how Pullman kept this part of the novel very vague and secretive in order to shock his readers at the end, I felt that the last few chapters were more of an information dump than a big reveal. When Lyra finally reaches her uncle, who has been exiled to Svalbard, a lot of secrets (and a betrayal) are revealed to her. Though it was a very good twist to end the book, I do think it was very abrupt and perhaps paced too quickly. I found myself overwhelmed with all this new information on ‘Dust’ and I did feel like I would need to read a plot summary to fully understand what happened.

However, despite my confusion, I have absolutely loved reading about Lyra on her riveting adventure – and it’s only just begun. Having the book end with Lyra and Pantalaimon walking into the unknown was excellent! What a great way to persuade readers to pick up the next book immediately. I definitely will be.


Comments (1)

  • I have watched the series but it appears I now need to read the books too! Your review really captures the imagination of Pullman and the intricate details of his fantasy world. Can’t wait to read it! 🙂

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