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Northern Lights

Northern Lights

by Philip Pullman

Reviewed by PAUL S. JENKINS

Enter a world of the familiar and the not-so-familiar: an Oxford college; children whose souls are embodied in shape-shifting animals; narrow boats; witches who never age; an experimental research station; bears that speak and wear armour, and much else besides.

This is the world of Northern Lights, the first in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (the final instalment of which, The Amber Spyglass, became the Whitbread Book of the Year). It's an engrossing, fully realised fantasy world that is much like our own, and yet in many respects not like it. It's the world of 12-year-old Lyra, growing up in Jordan College and getting a patchy education. Lyra's adventures start when she sees the Master of the college trying to poison her uncle, the maverick Lord Asriel, who wants to lead an expedition across the frozen north to investigate the strange properties of the Aurora.

Lyra is a bit of an urchin; she and her below-stairs friends fear the Gobblers, who reputedly kidnap children for nefarious purposes. Lyra is whisked away from Jordan by the mysterious Mrs Coulter, who shows her a side to life she's not previously encountered. Soon, however, Lyra has reason to mistrust Mrs Coulter and sets out on her adventures once again.

Though published as a children's novel, Northern Lights covers some deep subjects: the nature of the soul, parallel universes, and the religious definition of original sin, amongst others. In the world of Northern Lights, which the author describes as like our own world with some differences, human beings have daemons -- the aforementioned animal embodiments of their souls. In pre-pubescent children these daemons can take on many forms, only becoming fixed when a person grows to adulthood.

The idea of a daemon isn't just Pullman's idle conceit. Though it ties in with a child's idea of an imaginary friend or pet, the relationship between daemon and human lies at the core of the novel. In addition there's plenty of action, much strong emotion and an ending that leaves the reader wanting more. Highly recommended, and definitely not just for children.

[£5.99, paperback, 399 pp, Point (Scholastic) 1998 (copyright 1995) ISBN 0 590 66054 3]



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