Northern Lights is the first book in the His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman. The first book is also known as The Golden Compass in the US, and it follows a young girl named Lyra and her animal daemon Pan, as they discover that a group of people are kidnapping children and taking them to the freezing north to conduct obscure experiments on them.
I wanna start off by saying that I adored this book. The setting is fantastic. I love stories that deal with northern exploration, so travelling through the snow and ice with these characters was wonderful for me. There’s lots of travelling involved in general, so we get to see cities, small towns, the ocean, and finally the bitter cold north.
For a fantasy novel, the setting is quite unusual. The universe is much like ours, just more magical – the book starts in England, at the University of Oxford, and later we even get to see London. The world is different in a lot of ways, but a big part of it is recognisable, which I found very interesting. The north reminds me of Siberia – a freezing region with lots of untouched land. The place where they conduct the strange experiments also makes me think of northern Russia because of all the stories there are about secret operations up there. It’s definitely a unique setting for a fantasy novel.
The experiments conducted on the children are terrifying and heartbreaking. Every time someone talked about them, Lyra would feel desperate and sick. In most books when the main character feels that way I can’t identify with those feelings, but in this story I almost felt worse than Lyra. Maybe it’s just me, but I was absolutely horrified.
The characters are fascinating and all very memorable. Lyra is a curious child who doesn’t take shit from anyone, and while some people find her annoying, I really enjoyed reading about her. She’s pretty bad-ass for such a young girl and I loved how she got herself out of a lot of complicated situations instead of waiting to be saved by someone else. She’s quite bossy and likes to have control over everything, which I also thought was pretty awesome. Her friends are mostly street-kids or servants at the university, and they’re all boys, so she grew up playing outside, fighting with the other kids and exploring the city – as a result she’s not scared of the world and grew up to be kind of a rebel. We also get to meet Mrs. Coulter, who is the most unlikable character I’ve ever had to read about. She’s the kind of fancy lady who acts all kind and gentle but is secretly just a cold-blooded killer. Every time she showed up somewhere I wanted the ceiling to fall down and kill her. Ugh, I hate that woman.
Apart from the main characters, we also get to meet some very unusual people. There are the armoured bears for example – they are beautiful, white bears who live in the north and wear armour, and they talk and think like humans. Animals are very interesting in this trilogy in general – the whole daemon concept is very unique and wonderful, for example. Basically, every human being has a daemon, which is an animal who represents their soul. Humans are born with their daemons, they’re a part of them, and it’s impossible to live without them. As a big animal-lover, I found the idea quite lovely.
The most interesting aspect of the series, however, is the imagery. My favourite Booktuber, Jen Campbell, made a series of videos (this one, this one, this one and this one) with her friend Holly talking about all the imagery in the books, and I watched those videos before reading the first book, so it was quite easy for me to spot all the metaphors and the hidden meanings. The books talk more or less subtly about sexuality, growing up and the whole idea of sin, which was really fascinating. I especially love how Lyra, at the end of the first book, comes to the conclusion that sin is actually not a bad thing, that it’s good and should be embraced. I can’t even imagine how controversial that must have been when the book was released. Pullman also dismisses the idea that growing up is bad and that the ultimate goal is to stay a child; Jen and Holly discussed in their videos how His Dark Materials is sort of a response to the idea of growing up in The Chronicles of Narnia and Peter Pan – in those two works, growing up is seen as a bad thing, and Philip Pullman wanted to write a children’s story where it’s clear that there is nothing wrong with growing up and “losing your innocence”.
There are a few things I didn’t like about this book. The first one is Lyra’s way of talking. Most of the time she talks like an uneducated child, with bad grammar and specific expressions, which I think is due to the fact that all her friends talk like that, so she adapts. However, every once in a while she suddenly starts talking like some kind of desperate Disney princess, saying things like “oh, I hope you’re not hurt, my dear!”. That just seemed completely out of place – she’s a rebel, a wild girl who fights and doesn’t like to be pretty. So why in the world would she talk like that? Then the pacing was a bit strange at times. It would go from fast-paced, on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of moments to slow scenes with lots of talking, and I found that this kind of took me out of the story. I also have to say that I really didn’t like the ending, but I’m not gonna go into any details because I don’t wanna spoil it for you.
I’m definitely excited to get my hands on the second book in the series. I watched the (terrible) movie of the first one a few years ago, so I knew the plot more or less, but I have no idea what the other two books are about.
If you guys have read this series, I would love to talk about it in the comments below (keep in mind I’ve only read the first book so far). And if you haven’t, I hope I could interest you in picking it up.
‘Till next time and happy reading!