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Book Review: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Is it weird to review something so old and classic? Northern Lights can’t be a classic because that would make me old. So I’m just going to review it as normal and move on with my life. All good? Good.

northern lights“Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.”


Hands up who can pronounce Lyra’s surname? I’ve never been able to. I read this as a kid and am rereading it now because of the announcement of a new instalment to be released in October (!!!), but even now I have no idea how you’re supposed to pronounce that. I’ll stick with Lyra Silvertongue.

Oh the nostalgia! It’s been many many many years since I read this book, this whole series in fact, and picking it up again I’m realising just how dark and intense and complicated and sophisticated it actually is. As a child I was just enthralled by talking, shapeshifting animals and armoured bears. Now I want to know all of the politics, all of the Gyptian lore. Who are these people? Where did they come from? I feel like Pullman knows the answers.

Lyra Belacqua is a young girl living in a prestigious Oxford College. She is taught by the scholars and is friends with the servants and the Gypsies who live on barges on the river nearby. She wants to go on adventures and explore and never grow up. One fateful day she hides in a wardrobe in the retiring room at the college and witnesses a slideshow detailing an elusive and mysterious substance called Dust, kick-starting a whirlwind adventure that will take Lyra to the frozen North and make her question everything. Also she’ll meet a bear king who wears armour and stuff.

Lyra is an obnoxious little shit and that is why this book is so good and so relatable. No one was perfect as an 11 year old. I forgot how truly evil Mrs Coulter is as well, Lord Asriel is questionable, I’m not entirely sure of his motives yet (I can’t remember much about the sequels, it’s been about 15 years), but Mrs Coulter is without a doubt the most evil being to grace the page. The woman goes around torturing people and removing the souls of children! The Daemon thing is such a clever representation of the soul and innocence of a person. There is no way of hiding in this world. If you’re evil your Daemon will be a snake. Unless you’re cunning AF like Mrs Coulter, then it’s a sneaky Golden Monkey to lure people in to your trap. She should have had a Spider. OMG is it a Spider Monkey?!

The whole question of the series, Dust and the existence of other worlds and Original Sin, is very interesting, I’d love to know more about it and I’m sure in the next books I will be more informed. It’s such a deep and clever subject, adults read this series and go “Oh wow, I can not believe this is a kids book” and kids read it and become more informed about the world and generally think adults are stupid for thinking they wouldn’t want to read this stuff. Kids are smarter than we think they are.

Overall this is a brilliantly written world and is well deserving of the acclaim it has been awarded over the years. I feel weird giving something this old and this well known a star review, but this isn’t Classics Corner, so here we go: 5 Stars. Are you surprised?

5/5 *****


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