Not all universes are the same

A Review of Northern Lights

The first book in Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy for young adults

The main protagonist in Northern Lights is Lyra, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in one of Oxford University’s many colleges. Only Lyra’s Oxford is a different Oxford. It lies in an alternate universe, an upside-down world with zeppelins, witches and talking polar bears, and in which all humans have a daemon, a kind of ‘soul’ that takes physical, animal shape. Until a child reaches puberty, its daemon can change form, thereafter it becomes fixed.

Azriel,  Lyra’s uncle is investigating something he calls Dust, an elementary particle that seems to attach itself to adult humans, but not to children. He has also discovered a hole in the fabric of spacetime through which he believes he can travel to another universe. The Magisterium, a sort of supreme church, is interested in Dust too, and also in Lyra, for its own sinister reasons. To explain them in a short review would take up too much space and indeed might be a spoiler but, in short, it has to do with sex.

51h+zdAiJzLLyra falls into the clutches of the evil Mrs Coulter, an agent of the Magisterium, and uncovers a plot to kidnap children and take them to an experimental facility in the far north. She escapes and, with the help of the gypsies, the witches, a Texan called Lee Scoresby and the bear Iorek Byrnison, picks up the trail of her friend Roger to the place where the children are being held. The first book of the trilogy ends in a dramatic scene on the arctic ice when Lyra follows Azriel through a window to another world.

Northern Lights is so much more than a fantasy for young people. Although intended as a children’s book, it is a novel that adults can enjoy. It deals with some very adult ideas such as the nature of the ‘soul’ and of ‘evil’, the multiverse, quantum theory and the conflict of science with religion. It introduces one of the most chilling and calculating, yet not irredeemable, villains in literature. One of its most memorable episodes is a heroic battle worthy of Tolkein or Rider Haggard. The finale is, in a real sense, a cliffhanger, leaving the reader on tenterhooks for the next volume.

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