Northern Lights, or what do we do with problem called, em, Lyra, was a last minute substitute for Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, which proved hard to get (mainly due to the paperback only being release this month, I think). While I can’t compare the two books, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by Northern Lights as I’m not a huge fan of fantasy fiction (Tolkein being an exception).
This is a world a bit like ours, university lecturers who think they know everything (hello to Moore McDowell), a church that insists on a monopoly of “truth”, downtrodden gypsies and, of course, talking polar bears. But bears aren’t the only animals that talk, Lyra, like all humans is born with a daemon. Some kind of furry creature that can change shape at will, can talk and feel everything its human feels – a bit like a politician at election time. There is an invisible bond between humans and daemons (think Fianna Fail and property developers) and when one dies so does the other (unlike Fianna Fail who are obviously some abomination of nature).
Pullman’s fantasy world is just as difficult for young children to navigate as our own. Adults that are supposed to protect children end up damaging them or worse. The official world seems to help or turn a blind eye to the Gobblers – child catchers intent on trying to separate children from their daemons – a bit like official Ireland and child-abusing clergy.
And like our world, some parents are not averse to using their children to gain positions of power. Poor Lyra, along with her daemon Pantalaimon, has to contend with both a mother and a father who wish to do her harm in order to further their own ambitions. Not only that but she was abandoned in a stuffy university (Oxford) to be brought up by the dons. But Lyra possesses her own qualities and she sees off many adversities in her quest (all fantasy fiction has to have a quest) to free the children taken by the Gobblers and also to, as she thinks, rescue her father from a frozen prison near the North Pole.
Pullman is a consumate writer, his characters may not have much depth but they allow the story to move at a pace and the reader’s attention doesn’t flag. He also has the skill in persuading us to suspend our disbelief (Bears that make armour from the sky, witches, a talking grey goose) and buy into the story. And he doesn’t think much of organised religion, whats not to like? All in all a pleasant read and if I see the other two books knocking around a bookstore (its just a shame Waterstones has closed its covers) I may just have my daemon (a half-bee called Eric) pick them up.