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]