Saturday, 1 April 2017

Northern Lights


Book Title: Nothern Lights
Author: Philip Pullman
Series: His Dark Materials #1
Date Started: March 10th 2017
Date Completed: April 1st 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Adventure
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Star
Final Rating: Four stars

His Dark Materials was, like to many others, three of the standout books of my childhood. As with rereading anything I loved as a kid, I'm quite apprehensive it isn't going to be quite the same. And Northern Lights wasn't exactly how I remembered, but to be fair I've seen, read and heard so many iterations of this first book that haven't gone anywhere that it's getting unfairly predictable because I know what happens so well. So, while it might not quite have lived up to my expectations, I'm very much looking forward to reading the later books in the series with a greater understanding of the symbolism and politics that I think I'm only just starting to notice properly.

The big thing that I wasn't expecting from this book was how everything was told to me, instead of shown. Recently this has been something that's become a lot more noticeable for me since I'm studying how to make films, but even in books it's been somewhat of a lazy technique to be avoided. But, in all fairness, Northern Lights is a children's book and just because Pullman was telling us a lot of the relationships and feelings of the characters, there's a hell of a lot you have to work out for yourself in the symbolism and meaning.
Speaking of which, what was special about this reading of the book was how much I noticed the political and religious elements in the story. If you know anything about the series, you'll know it's so key to everything that's happening, but of course as a child almost all of it went straight over my head. Dust is significant and not necessarily evil, but the Church are determined to prove otherwise, but it means so much more when you can contextualise it within our society. Aside from how genius it is, the way it's communicated is utterly beautiful, with many concepts almost magical realist in the way it's presented - if it wasn't a very fantastical and whimsical world to start with.

About a third of the way through rereading Nothern Lights I started to get really scared because I really wasn't enjoying it. As much as I liked the characters and the world, everything felt quite stagnant despite the fact I knew it was going places. Again, these days we're used to fast-moving plots where everything that happens in a key part of the story, and honestly I feel very comfortable in that. As much as I love world building, something was feeling slow here and the more unsure I became the more disappointed I was. Luckily, once we finally left Mrs Coulter I started to fall much further into place and I began really enjoying myself again. I can't tell if it was the structure of the book or the pure fact that I really, really dislike Mrs Coulter, but once the story had moved on from her I found it so much better. It's one thing to appreciate the place a character has in the story, it's another to enjoy things when she's around.
I think what I'm going to leave this book with is the awareness that it's about exploring the world. Not so much establishing everything for the rest of the series - it's very much a strong novel on its own - but our main focus is to learn about Lyra's world and explore its cultural temperament before (slight spoilers) we pass forward into the other worlds for the rest of the series. When I frame it like that in my head I'm suddenly so much happier about my experience rereading this book, and it makes me want to read the rest of the series even more. The mastery of detail and imagination in the cultures, creatives, politics and relations in Lyra's world are immediately recognisable as what elevates Pullman ahead of so many others, and still fills me with so much wonder after so many years.

Of course, for a world to be magnificent it has to have likewise wonderful characters. And Pullman does not disappoint.
It was a funny seeing Lyra at such an early stage again. She's very unique and I honestly don't think any version she's been embodied in since (play, film, radio drama) has quite captured her as the same person as in the novel. She's a very unusual and brilliant character. Somewhat the perfect mix between all the various ways a child can go at that age - which is part of what makes her the ideal protagonist for such a sophisticated children's book as this. But damn, she's a handful. It makes me feel old saying that (I'm only nineteen, come on), but I felt for all the people trying to juggle with her, but steadfastly letting her take her own path. I think there are a lot of adult role models in these books as well as child ones.

You don't need me to tell you that His Dark Materials is a classic trilogy for children and adults alike. It may not have been exactly as I expected after so many years, but it doesn't dent its wonderful reputation. I think particularly at a time when so many things are turbulent in our own world, our younger generations could do with hopeful tales of a similarly turbulent world, with the welcome addition of some fantasy.

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