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Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
(Scholastic, £5.99, 399 pages, paperback, 1998; first published 1995.)

This 'Young Adult' novel, the first volume in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, is on its own a work of transcendent brilliance.

Northern Lights (published in America as The Golden Compass) has all the ingredients of a children's fantasy - a child protagonist, a naïve freshness of perception, a sense that the world grownups have created is unnecessarily twisted and cruel, all of these united in a harrowing educative quest tale - but Pullman manages also to make his story a surprising and very mature exploration of the nature of power politics, cultural differences, bureaucratic ideology, and, most importantly, the nature of the Soul. When one considers that this book is probably the most exhilaratingly inventive Fantasy novel since Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993), Pullman's importance for the genre begins to become clear.

The subsequent installments of His Dark Materials - The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (1999) - take the story of the sequence's protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, into a succession of universes other than her own; Northern Lights restricts itself to her native version of the Earth, which is intriguing enough as a beginning. Here, what is presumably the late Twentieth Century is menacingly archaic. Europe is still dominated by the Church; but, in a deft variation on the well-established alternate history scenario of the Catholic Church suppressing Protestantism and perpetuating its Torquemadian rule (used by Keith Roberts, Kingsley Amis, John Whitbourn, and sundry others), it is the Calvinists who have infiltrated and subverted Roman Catholicism. A puritanical Magisterium controls Christendom from Geneva; its agencies are in competition and conflict, allowing the Church's ultimate rulers to maintain the general balance (and field-test all of their options). To the East, Tartars still threaten the civilized European kingdoms; technology is out of the steampunk cornucopia: 'anbaric' power sources, 'photometry', steam-driven vessels, air travel by zeppelin. England is in many ways a police state, a realm of tradition and hierarchy, the 'King's party' a great political force. All of this is a lightly sketched but sinisterly appropriate backdrop to a superb adventure story.

Another of Pullman's very effective conceits is his shamanistic one of 'daemons': every human being in Lyra's world possesses an animal familiar that is in essence an externalized soul, an inseparable part of the self, which assumes a definitive shape only after adolescence. Disturbed by the theological implications of the interaction between this phenomenon and enigmatic elementary particles known as 'Dust', a quasi-scientific Church agency known as the General Oblation Board begins to kidnap children and conduct secret experiments upon them. The head of this organization, Mrs Coulter, is Lyra's mother; in Pullman's symbolic scheme, drawn overtly from Milton's Paradise Lost, she represents the often cruel and inflexible authority of God. Her former lover, her charismatic and amorally ambitious Satanic opposite, is Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, who has a dark project of his own. Partaking of both of their natures but implicitly transcending them as well, Lyra becomes incipiently and dangerously involved in the great feud between them, and this drives the headlong narrative of Northern Lights.

Consigned to the care of the Fellows and Scholars of a Gothically conceived Oxford College, Lyra, a wild, vivid, resourceful, mendacious, and captivating heroine, is drawn first into her father's academic intrigues and then into the GOB's conspiracy of kidnapping. She flees her mother's clutches, lives among gypsies of the rivers and fens, participates in a reckless rescue mission to Lapland, befriends an exiled warrior from the kingdom of the polar bears on Spitzbergen, experiences an Auschwitzian medical establishment from the inside, and designs and participates in an ingenious palace coup. This relentlessly paced progress to the northern edge of the world is also a cascade of wonders: a compass that measures Truth; a Romany state within the English state; the aforementioned polar bears, expert metallurgists and armourers; bizarre mergers of scientific theory with theology; witches who act as flying archers in battle; a city visible in the Aurora, the Northern Lights of the book's title. Pullman's inventive storytelling genius, which is expressed in rich, erudite, finely cadenced language, is enough to make this novel extraordinary; but its metaphysics carries it still further.

For an adult reader, a text like this has disagreeable features, notably obvious didacticism, which at times takes the form of homilies: Now listen, children, for the moral... But while he knows he must cater to that audience, Pullman does so on the whole unpatronisingly, indeed challengingly; he is fully capable of deeper intellectual implication. He is playing with John Milton's dark materials, with all their grounding in Biblical and Calvinist ontology and moral philosophy. And so dogmatic conceptions of God are interrogated, as is the magnetism of Satanic evil, so alluring to the end; models of political organization, hegemonic and pluralistic, mingle with the theology of free will and predestination; and accompanying, indeed springing from, this mixture is a very elegant discussion of the theoretical mechanics of alternate worlds. These meditations can only deepen as the sequels take Lyra into other Earths, including our own.

Northern Lights is an immediate, certain classic, head and shoulders above virtually any competitor. It demands, and more than repays, serious (and mature) attention.

Review by Nick Gevers.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

  • nonfiction - The Subtle Knife, the second volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy reviewed by Nick Gevers.

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© Nick Gevers 24 July 1999