I first read this book when I was about twelve and I just couldn’t get into it. It wasn’t the type of book that I liked to read and I remember the size of the book just made reading it so much harder. But I finished it and never even thought about reading the next two. But ten years later, and I found myself returning to the world of Lyra, polar bears, daemons and witches. This time, I listened to it on audiobook (which is also narrated by Philip Pullman), and I found myself engrossed.
Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe.
He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer.
All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.
21-years-old and I’ve finally read this classic middle-grade novel. And to be honest, I can completely understand why my 12-year-old self didn’t understand what was going on. The whole book is basically a metaphor for God. It has a lot to do with religion (but it’s not thrown in your face, it’s just in the background and a running theme throughout), there’s a lot of philosophical questions and theories being thrown about, and there’s also way too many long and boring conversations. Obviously, being 21, I can understand these themes and conversations a lot easier than ten years ago but that didn’t stop those long, boring conversations being long and boring. There are plenty of times where unnecessary conversations were taking place and I feel like they could have been cut out to make the book shorter, which also means that it would be making it more accessible for the younger audience.
“You cannot change what you are, only what you do.”
– Philip Pullman, Northern Lights
However, I did love all of the characters, especially Lyra. She was such a fierce young girl who wouldn’t let anything stand in her way of her quest, and I also admired that she did get emotional and cry when things were going wrong and getting too much for her. This emotion added so many layers to her character because I’m tired of reading about female protagonists who are strong and warrior-like and badass, who show no emotion and think it’s weak to cry. That is not sending a positive message to the young boys and girls out there reading those types of stories. So having a 12-year-old protagonist that is brave, daring, yet loving at the same and also cries and isn’t ashamed of it is refreshing.
I also loved the character of Iorek Byrnison. I don’t even know why. There’s just something about his character and the way he looks out for Lyra that I just completely fell in love with. There were loads and loads of character within this book, and sometimes it was hard to keep up with who was who, but you get used to it quite quickly and learn to love them all. Apart from Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter. God, those two characters were just hateful. I really liked Lord Asriel at first, but as the book went on, the hate started to seep in and by the end of the book, I loathed him. Marisa Coulter was just an evil human being from page one.
“Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it.”
– Philip Pullman, Northern Lights
The plot itself was very intriguing. I liked the idea of the massive adventure to the North and how there were other plotlines underneath the main one that was woven in subtly to create this elaborate storyline and world. The ending messed me up BIG TIME. I was not ready for anything that happened during the last 50 (ish) pages. So as soon as I finished listening to Northern Lights, I listened to The Subtle Knife. I just had to find out what happened.
There are parts of this book that didn’t work well… Which is why this book is 3.5 stars. I didn’t like how Lyra spoke to Iorek towards the end of the book. She kept calling him “my love”, and “my dear”. HE’S A POLAR BEAR. And also… YOU ARE TWELVE! Which 12-year-old calls ANYONE those terms? No one. And don’t think any 12-year-olds were calling people that 20 years ago, either. So I have no idea what was up with that.
Also, as aforementioned, there are quite a few rambling parts in this book where there are unneeded conversations between characters and where the science just got a bit boring. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really interested in science, but when it goes on for 400-odd pages, it can get a bit much.
Overall, this was an enjoyable book, and the positives definitely outweigh the negatives – which is why I am already halfway through The Amber Spyglass – a week later. I’m glad I re-read this as I have no idea how middle-grade children can read this and fully appreciate it. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong…