Philip Pullman: Northern Lights

(Published in the USA as The Golden Compass)

A fascinating story for all sorts of reasons — so much so that it's difficult to know where to begin.

On one level it's a very good quest-type adventure, set in a world which is similar to this one, but significantly different in terms of geography, history, development of technology, religion — plus one other really significant difference which I'll come to later on.

Purely as an adventure, it works very well. The heroine (named Lyra, about 10 years old if I remember rightly) sets out to find some of her friends who have mysteriously disappeared. In the process she also gradually pieces together the truth about her own past, who her real parents are and in what way all these things are connected with some weird stories she has overheard about the Northern Lights and another world 'beyond the sky'.

Lyra herself is a fascinating character. I don't remember coming across anyone in fiction with quite her particular combination of characteristics. As in any good story, of course, her character and our perception of it develops as we go along. The story itself does move at a great pace and the plot takes several twists. It kept me guessing — particularly about the characters and motivations of certain key individuals — all the way through.

What really sets this book apart, though, is the extraordinary imaginativeness of the writing. Sometimes a 'parallel world' concept is used in a story just for a little variety, to explore some of the human possibilities from a slightly different perspective. We have some of this here too, trying out the effects of a different relationship between religion and science, exploring the issues that might arise for a society of intelligent warrior-bears, imagining a love affair (of sorts) between an ordinary mortal and someone who, if not exactly immortal, lives many times longer than we do. All this is written with great sensitivity and perceptiveness, so that we are able — with some considerable degree of sympathy — to enter into the feelings and dilemmas of characters that are very different from ourselves.

The greatest imaginative achievement must surely be the way the author develops the idea that human beings in the world of the story have a sort of companion-spirit, for which the word 'daemon' is used. The nature of the vital link between human and daemon — and the various implications of this — gradually emerges as the tale unfolds. (One might see the daemon as a sort of externalisation of the soul, the conscience or some other such concept. My impression is, however, that we would be doing the story an injustice by trying to force it into an allegorical framework of this sort.)

All this is done so skilfully that we not only accept this apparently bizarre concept for the purposes of the story, we enter into the feelings of Lyra and her daemon towards each other. We begin to feel we understand something of what it would mean to experience life in this way. We even share — to some extent — in Lyra's horror when she encounters a situation where the relation between human and daemon is violated. (I hope what I have just said is too vague to be considered a 'spoiler'.)

The book uses the genre of fantasy in the best possible way — to explore ideas which could probably not have been tackled in any other medium. Whatever children may make of it — and I imagine it must be pretty popular — it's one of the most fascinating and strangely moving books I've read for some time.