London, Scholastic, 2011, 397p
When new worlds are brought to life in fiction, there are often parallels with the world we know and live in. There are characteristics or places that seem familiar, and thoughts and ideas that are universally acknowledged. This is a technique for creating a world that the reader can understand and imagine; and a technique Pullman has used to perfection.
Northern Lights is set in the most majestic of alternative universes, like some great fantasy from within the mind of a child. The story begins at Jordan College in Oxford, where we meet a young girl with an appetite for adventure. Suddenly, all across Brytain (yes, intended typo), children are disappearing, and Lyra finds herself traveling North on a dangerous adventure.
It is not the plot of this novel I love so much as the details within in. With regards to Lyra's journey, it takes her North, into the dark recesses of snow and ice, where characters have Nordic names like Iorek Byrnison (oh, how I love Scandinavia!). Lyra is surprisingly brave for a twelve year old, facing up against witches and armoured bears, lying to scientists, and plotting an elaborate escape plan from an experimental laboratory. She is kidnapped and captured countless times, but has a smart head on her shoulders and a childish optimism that keeps her calm. And somehow, along the journey, she becomes braver and stronger, learning more about herself and the complexity of the world around her.
But the details are what I adore - those little elements that are grounded in our reality and seem so within reach. Things like dæmons, human souls in animal form that guide and support the human characters - I will leave you to learn more. Things like the pages of clippings in the back of the novel, an appendix with materials designed to confirm the reality of this fantasy. And, of course, the alethiometer, a compass-like devise used to uncover truths. These details feel so real, so that as you read, you imagine what form your dæmon might take.
The adventure story is somewhat complicated, full of twists and turns and plenty of danger. Lyra is an intelligent hero, but it is never clear to her or the reader who is good and who is evil - much like real life, the characters are complex, with secret motives and uncertain fates. I think this is the thing I like most about the novel.
Reading this as an adult, Northern Lights has had a profound effect upon me. I remember reading it as a child, but I did not remember what happened. I think this is partly due to the complexity of the language and themes tackled here - Pullman does not patronise the teenage reader, but challenges them to think about morality, philosophy and original sin. There are so many levels to this novel that it's vast fan base has created a wiki to try to unravel meaning and truth. It is this complexity that I feel will stay with me; so on to the next one!