Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Some children’s books may be scarier if you read them when you’re older. Children seem to be able to take almost any terrible circumstance as a given, especially in stories. I myself had a little more trouble accepting pale, swollen monsters that sniff around for a little girl who is trapped in a cellar, than I would have when I was little. At 25, I’m pretty much an adult, have just read my first book by Neil Gaiman and was thoroughly scared by it. Gaiman wrote the story for his own little daughters, who loved scary stories and brave girls. He thought about the houses that he had known well in his life and used them to build a children’s horror adventure with the bravest, most charming heroine that you can think of.

Coraline is a little girl and an explorer. She has just moved into a flat in an old mansion, and has started to investigate the grounds around it. She has all the time in the world to do it: it’s the summer vacation and her parents are busy with work. They hardly pay any attention to her. Coraline talks to her neighbours sometimes, but mostly she thinks grownups are a bit useless. They can’t even say her name correctly. On a very, very rainy day when she can’t go outside, she resorts to exploring her own flat. One of the doors, she discovers, opens unto a brick wall. It’s not locked, because is doesn’t lead anywhere. The next day, the eccentric old ladies that live in the flat under Coraline’s read her tealeaves, and tell her she’s in danger. The crazy old man who lives in the attic flat tells Coraline that the mice he claims to train told him to give her a message: ‘don’t go through the door’. Coraline thinks nothing of it.

The next time she opens the door with the brick wall behind it, the wall has gone. Instead, she finds a corridor that leads to a flat almost exactly like her own home, with people in it that look almost exactly like her parents. Except, they have black buttons in their faces instead of eyes and they pay a lot more attention to Coraline. The girl likes this new place: it has great food, singing rats, dancing neighbours and smiling parents, even if they act a bit strange. It is like a dream. But when her ‘other mother’ invites her to stay in her ‘other home’ forever, Coraline declines. She misses her true parents. Only when she returns to her real flat and discovers that her parents have disappeared, she realises just how determined the ‘other mother’ is to have her live with her. Scared as she is, she knows that she’s the only one who can save her parents, and she has to go back. Horrific discoveries expose the other house for what it really is: a nightmare of trickery and decay, with a hungry, capricious monster in its centre.

Now, I have a particular thing thing about eyes. Maybe it’s because I’m practically blind without my contact lenses or because people can say so much with their eyes, but I hate it when things happen to or with eyes. Characters who are supposed to be dead or sleeping, but suddenly open their eyes are a worse jumpscare for me than ghosts jumping out of corners. So you can imagine that I did not like characters with buttons for eyes, especially not when the ‘other mother’ casually suggests that Coraline will need to have buttons sewn unto her face as well. The drawings that the wonderful illustrator Chris Riddell made for the tenth anniversary of the book further convinced me that those buttons are scarier than any gore or fangs. Exhibit A:

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Neil Gaiman creates a great sense of atmosphere and surroundings. He writes in the introduction to the book that he based the mansion in the story on different houses he lived in during his life. Everything started with the house he saw in his mind and that’s noticable in the book: throughout Coraline’s adventure you can feel the old house around you, with its corridors and cupboards and stairs. Together with details like crawling toys and dogs who eat chocolate this house makes up the sinister world on the other side of the door. At the same time it’s also the stage for the part of the story that plays in our real world on this side of the door, the mundane world with microwave pizza and parents who work on their computers. Somehow, it works both ways, and I think that is because the two worlds aren’t completely separated. Coraline’s real parents are abducted from one world to another, rats from the other side creep around at night in the drawing room on this side of the door and a black cat can come and go as he pleases.

The only thing I didn’t like much was the double ending to the story. After the natural climax of the story, another problem arises and instead of winding down, Coraline has to spring to action again. It felt a little unnecessary to me, I would have been happy with things as they were after the first ‘ending’. However, it was nice to see how inventive Coraline was once again when she resolved the final problem. “What an extraordinary child,” a neighbour says about her, and she is quite right.

I loved how realistic Coraline is as a young girl. The way she acts demonstrate a peculiar childlike kind of logic, even before anything mysterious happens. For example: she is disgusted when her father makes a ‘recipe’ for dinner instead of a normal meal, she searches for the dangerous well in the grounds “so that she knew where it was, to keep away from it properly,” and she tries to draw the attention of her dad by wandering into his study several times. Later on in the stry, she is clever enough to understand the very real danger she is in, but brave enough to keep searching for her parents. Her view of the world is matter-of-fact, even in the face of inexplicable situations, with a hint of cynicism that all too intelligent children can sometimes have. She handles her problems much better than most grownups would, I think. But in the end, she is just a child who wants to be picked up and hugged by her mum and dad. And pizza.

Rihanna Award for an acute sense of Disturbia

Neil Gaiman, Coraline (London, 2002)

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Jo Robin

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1) by Philip Pullman

My last review was about the first book, Northern Lights, in the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. If you haven’t read that review, I highly recommend that you do, because many elements of Pullman’s world are the same. The last book in this series came out 18 years ago, but finally, great fans like me now have a book that allows us to revisit Pullman’s Oxford once again. In La Belle Sauvage, we step back into his parallel world, where human souls walk beside people in the shape of animal Daemons and steampunk elements fill the air of this academic city.

La Belle Sauvage takes place ten years before the first book of the His Dark Materials series and features Lyra as a baby. The story starts off with a little boy, also eleven years old, as was Lyra in the first book of His Dark Materials. His name isand the story is told through his experiences and perspective. He is the son of innkeepers, but also does the odd jobs for the nuns in the convent across the road: the Priory of St. Rosamund. He is the eyes and ears of the city, as he doesn’t say much and no one really seems to notice him. When the nuns take in baby Lyra, he hears of the mystery surrounding her birth and he becomes fascinated with the child and concerned for her wellbeing.

In the meantime, Oxford is changing. The old government was apparently quite secular, but now the church has taken over and the Magisterium is gaining power. At school, a new organisation, with the Magisterium behind it, appears, named the League of St. Alexander. The people of the League call upon the children to keep an eye on their teachers and even parents, and alert the Magisterium whenever they are doing or saying something that is, according to them, heresy. Malcolm is quite suspicious of all of this and refuses to join, though many kids do join. Later on, he comes into contact with Hannah Relf, an academic and alethiometrist, and he becomes her spy for the secret organisation Oakley Street, that tries to oppose the religious policies of the Magisterium.

Without fully realising it, Malcolm is now in the middle of a political storm that is about to take place, when he realises that Lyra is in danger. A terrifyingly perverse man, named Bonneville, shows up at their inn and especially his daemon, a three-legged hyena, scares Malcolm. Alice, the kitchen maid at the inn, has had an uncomfortable encounter with him and they soon learn that he has been in prison for some sexual offence. Most disturbing of all, this man beats his own daemon and therefore maims his own soul. And this man is after Lyra. To make matters worse, the Gyptians tell Malcolm of a storm that’s coming and how the city will be flooded, worse than ever. Malcolm tries to warn people, but no one believes him. But then the storm hits Oxford and the Priory collapses in the flood. Of course Bonneville sees his chance and tries to take Lyra, but Malcolm and Alice get to her first and take the baby with them into Malcolm’s little boat, called ‘La Belle Sauvage’, with the plan to take her to London, to her father Lord Asriel.

Writing a prequel, or even revisiting an old series or book, is often a tricky thing. Many authors fail, either by trying too hard to add to their success and therefor make it too unbelievable or by not being able to create a story interesting enough to stand on its own. Often success in the industry seems far more important than simply a good story. Pullman, however, pulled off a good story in my opinion. Not only is it a good book to read on its own, but also reminds us of the past series in a great way. Many new elements come to light that add to his already created universe. For example, we never really knew that the Magisterium gained its power recently in the His Dark Materials series; we just assumed they’d always been in power. Also, in this book the obsession with Dust starts. I love how he broadens his world, without this book becoming nothing more than a weak story with some cool new features.

For one thing, I really liked the main characters, the kids especially. Now, I’m going to defend Malcolm for a bit, because I’ve read many reviews in which people strongly disliked him. People thought the character was boring, plain and couldn’t possibly fill Lyra’s shoes as a main character. I loved Malcolm, especially because he’s nothing like Lyra. He’s only eleven, but incredibly wise. He has a lot of knowledge on people, simply gained by observing them. I loved how he’s a rugged practical man in the making, with a special talent for fixing things and building things, especially his little boat. He’s quiet, but also incredibly determined. As a Dutch girl I’d say: he’s from the north, obviously. But I also really liked Alice, the Gyptian sixteen-year-old kitchen maid from the inn. At first she and Malcolm don’t get on, because she’s always scowling and in a general bad mood, but when they’re on a mission together to save Lyra, they find out they’re very much the same. Both Malcolm and Alice don’t say more than needs to be said, they endure their hardships and get on with things. Alice never once complains, though it wasn’t her idea and just ends up with an eleven-year-old boy and a baby on the run. When I learned that she’s also convinced she’s ugly, when she finally softens towards Malcolm, when a no-nonsense mothering instinct pops up and even attacks Bonneville to protect the others, I loved her even more. She’s not pretty or soft, but she’s real. I felt the urge to give Malcolm a pat on the back every now and then, for being so courageous: ‘You did good, kid.’ Alice, she can take care of herself.

There is however a big difference in tone and atmosphere between the His Dark Materials series and this book. Northern Lights especially was very magical. Bad things were happening, but as I pointed out in my last review, the entire idea of original sin kind of went over my head when I was little, because the rest of the book had a more soft and kind feeling. La Belle Sauvage is a lot darker in atmosphere. The Magisterium is gaining power, their inquisition officers are patrolling the streets and people simply ‘disappear’. This also happened in the first book to kids, but it was more in a fairy-tale kind of way. In this book it feels like the stories our grandparents told about the Second World War. The kids in their boat also end up in some kind of underworld, where people’s wishes roam about and on the other side, all the things people wish to forget. A fairy tries to take the baby and the river god grants them passage in the end. But it’s all very intimidating and not at all magical. It’s like the old magic that people lived with once upon a time, but mostly feared.

The story does start off rather slow. It paints the calm undisturbed world that Malcolm lives in and the day-to-day chores he does. This didn’t bother me at all, because I loved reading about his work and his thoughts. It takes a while, but then his world well and truly starts to crumble and all hell breaks loose. I enjoyed Pullman’s style of writing very much, once again. He has a way of making half the book about three kids in a boat, and keeping it interesting somehow: nerve-wracking even at times. It seems like he is able to climb inside the minds of unusual children, who are nothing like the cliché kids you sometimes read about, but kids with real thoughts and ideas. Also, it really was a pleasure to revisit this world of Alethiometers, zeppelins and Daemons; it felt a bit like coming home again. The only thing I disliked was the open ending, but that’s the fate of all bookworms prone to reading series…

Oxford Revisited award: for giving one the feeling of coming home

Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1) (Oxford, 2017)

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Thura Nightingale 

 

When I hit you: or, a portrait of the writer as a young wife by Meena Kandasamy

This book is part of my effort this year to read author from a diverse range of backgrounds, and to read more female writers. Meena Kandasamy is from India, and is a female, so this book fell into both categories, because I haven’t read much books from Indian authors before.

I feel compelled to add a warning to this review: this book contains a lot of graphic descriptions of domestic abuse and rape, which might make you re-consider whether you would want to read the book or not. I read the story without knowing how graphic some scenes would be, and was taken aback by some of them. I will refrain from using graphic descriptions in this review though, so you can read this.

‘When I hit you’ is the story about a woman and her abusive marriage. This story of her marriage is intertwined with one about her previous big love before she married and her aspirations to be a writer. Through those stories the book narrates how she got into the marriage, what the abuse did to her psychologically, and how she managed to get out of it and continue her life. Each chapter is about a different part of her life. The parts about her past with her former lover are used, among things, to describe how her previous life with her lover and their sexual exploits are used against her by her husband to break her. Also, her old lover makes her ponder the meaning of love and sex, when comparing his actions and lovemaking to that of her husband. Neither was perfect, but you can almost image the protagonist thinking: how did I end up with a husband like this?’ The chapters about her aspirations to be a writer are partly used to show how she copes with the present situation. She does that by pretending to write the story about the abuse, instead of living it, placing herself out of the situation. However, her husband doesn’t like her writing, and she is forced to write more and more in secret and in her mind only. Her love for writing is only one thing her husband takes from her though. Slowly, everything that she holds dear is twisted by him by making it into something bad, something a good wife should not concern herself with.

The main character has no name in this story, and is only referred to as ‘she’. This is deliberately done by Meena Kandasamy, because in this way the story of ‘she’ becomes the story of every woman. Or to speak in Kandasamy’s own words: “a woman at whom society cannot spit or throw stones, because this me is a she who is made up only of words on a page, and the lines she speaks are those that everyone hears in their own voice”. In this way, the protagonist of this book becomes some kind of universal sufferer, which could be every one of us, and not the story of one woman who was unlucky. This is a very powerful method to make clear that it is not only ‘weak’ persons, who fall into abusive relationships, but that it could happen to anyone. Another reason for the choice of a more abstract character becomes clear at the ending of the book. Once the main person is back home with her parents, and starts to talk about the abuse, she gets a lot of inquiries ‘why she did not get out of it quicker’, ‘why did you let this happen to you’, ‘I thought you were a feminist’, and questions like that.  Kandasamy has experienced an abusive marriage herself, but one can understand she would rather write about it in a less-direct personal way to move the focus to the topic of abusive, and not on her personal experiences.

The writing style of this book is very emotional. Sometimes maybe overly so, however that is also a personal preference. I come from a cold country where everybody understands each other by the way a silence feels, so prose sounds dramatic to me quickly. But everyone experiences emotions in a different way, so the tone of a book is hard to judge. Beside the emotional tone, the style of the writing is very poetic. Reading, it feels like something between poetry and prose, looking at the lay-out and the sentences she uses. She tells the story in little fragments, leaving it to the reader to piece the story together, like poetry often does. The language used is also very beautiful at times, full of contradictions and other clever writing tricks. For example, in one sentence she uses ‘living day’ and ‘funeral pyre’ in the same paragraph, beautifully showing the contradictions of her life between having the live-force to want to live and the depression from living in an abusive marriage.

‘Funeral pyre’ also shows the Indian context of this book. Kandasamy is Indian, and active as a feminist, both things are apparent when reading this book. The ‘she’ of the book is also Indian and a feminist, often she is even accused of ‘ultra-feminism’ by her husband and other men. In the book the ‘she’ reflects on Indian society and the role of women in that. She feels pressure from her mother to just be the ‘good obedient’ wife, and to wait until her husband calms down. Also she is afraid what her husband might do, if she isn’t a good wife. She thinks about the burning of wives, as she talks about what happens to woman who ‘do not behave’ (funeral pyre). Of course, I do not know to which extent this book shows the reality of women in India, but at any rate it is good that books are written about strong woman, who end up in an abusive relationship. It is not a cheerful book to read, but it is something that does happen, and can happen in many different contexts, so it is good to be aware of it.

The ‘she’ in her book screams for love, but her voice is silenced by her husband and society. Eventually she realizes she is the only one who can save herself, and, thank God, she eventually does. The book ends with a powerful reflection on the meaning of one’s body, being a woman and fighting your way out of whatever oppressive situation you happen to be living in. I cannot adequately explain the power of the ending, so I’ll end this with a quote from it instead: “I am the woman with wings, the woman who can fly and fuck at will. I have smuggled this woman out of the oppressive landscape of small-town India. I need to smuggle her out of her history, out of the do’s and don’ts for good Indian Girls”.  And this does not only go for Indian girls, but for everyone!

Feminism award for telling the story of a strong woman who manages to save herself

Meena Kandasamy, when I hit you: or, a portrait of the writer as a young wife (London, 2017)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

You know when sometimes you pick up a book expecting it to be good, but you’re terribly disappointed? The opposite happened to me with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a historical fantasy novel by Natasha Pulley. I bought it because I thought it would be an entertaining story with steampunk elements and besides, it looked pretty. I gave it to my youngest brother for his birthday, hoping to borrow it from him when he finished it (you know you do it too). When I finally read it, it turned out to be so much better than expected that I couldn’t shut up about it and now I want everybody to read it. If you like a good chase through the tunnels of the London Underground, sudden deaths under mysterious circumstances and golden firefly automatons, you’ll probably love it as much as I did.

Having said that, it is quite hard to convey why the book is so great without giving away too much of the plot, which is a big part of its brilliance, but I will give it a try. In 1883 Victorian London, the quiet Thaniel Steepleton is a telegraph operator at the Home Office. Usually his life is unexciting, until two remarkable things happen on the same day. Firstly, the Ministry gets a warning from Scotland Yard that Clan na Gael, an Irish independence organisation based in America, will bomb public buildings in London on 30 May 1884. Secondly, Thaniel finds his appartment broken into. Nothing seems to have been taken, but a golden watch has been left in his room.

The following May, a student called Grace Carrow is disturbed by an enthusiastic greeting from her best friend, Akira Matsumoto, while doing research in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They are both outsiders in the university city, she being a woman and he being Japanese, but that’s about the only thing they have in common. Matsumoto is rich, sociable and lazy, translating Japanese poetry when he feels like it, but not doing much else. Grace is a grumpy physicist, who is scrambling to get her research done before the end of term, because it will be her last and if she doesn’t have a scientific discovery to publish an article about, her last hope to be allowed to continue her research will be gone and she will have to marry someone in London.

When 30 May arrives, all government institutions are in uproar because of the bomb threat, which is carried out in spectacular fashion. Thaniel’s life is, to his bewilderment, saved by the golden watch that he found in his room. Not believing this is coincidence and encouraged by the head of Scotland Yard, Thaniel decides to investigate the maker of the pocketwatch, a Japanese craftsman called Keita Mori. Meanwhile, Grace is working on her experiment that should prove that aether, the medium through which light is supposed to travel, exists. But the summer brings her to London and high society, where, surprisingly, she meets a simple clerk whose name is Thaniel. From this point on, their stories overlap, while they both get sucked in by the intricacies of British-Japanese relations and, in different ways, by the charms of Keita Mori, the watchmaker of Filigree Street. The story speeds up when different characters discover different secrets and sometimes decide to take drastic steps to protect themselves or someone they care about. In the final part of the book especially, you’ll have to pay attention, or you’ll miss some crucial plot points.

The book has a romantic subplot that is so subtle, that for ages I thought I was only imagining the attraction between the characters because I rooted for them so much. When the lovestory finally played out, it was sweeter and much happier than I had dared hope for. The interaction between main characters becomes even more interesting because of the change of perspective: some chapters are told from the point of view of Grace, most from Thaniel’s and a few through the eyes of Ito, the Minister for Internal Affairs of Japan. These people experience the fast-paced story very differently and often disagree with each other, which forces the reader into uncertainty about who to root for. However, we are never allowed to read from the point of view of Mori, the watchmaker. Everybody circles around him, everybody hates him or loves him, everbody wonders who Keita Mori really is.

The story becomes gradually more complicated, with chapters taking place in Japan several years before the main story, characters interacting in unexpected ways and terrific plottwists. Hardly anyone is who they say they are. I think the relationships in the story, romantic or otherwise, are so natural because the characters are very realistic to begin with. Even minor characters get some flavour to their personality, or something unique about them. None of the main characters are heroes in the traditional sense of the word, they are flawed and don’t trust each other mostly. Which is good, because they are not very trustworthy either. But they are likable, and best of all, they are not boring. Grace is a good example. Although there are many suffragettes in her circles, Grace is not one of them, like you might expect from a protagonist in a story written in the 21st century. She declares that most women are to vacuous to make good use of the right to vote. Her male best friend lovingly points her out for the hypocrite she is, but she doesn’t care and instead goes to extraordinary lengths to get what she wants out of life, including frequently dressing up as a man to do things women aren’t allowed to do.

The book is Natasha Pulley’s debut, and she has done her research on the time en places in her story extremely well. Not only are the historical events correct, but the science and inventions of the era are right as well. A Japanese museum village, for instance, really existed in Hyde Park, and the rails of the London underground often really were on the same level as the platform, which sounds incredibly dangerous. But probably the most interesting thing is Grace’s aether experiment, which is

based on the Michelson-Morley experiment that meant a revolution for physics, and eventually lead to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. In The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, slightly different conclusions are drawn from the experiment and so a kind of magic, that is supported by science, is born. The story is still a fantasy novel, with imaginative inventions, but even the inexplicable things feel probable.

I haven’t yet talked about the deadly samurai, the mechanical octopus, the precocious orphan girl, dozens of steam trains, the opera by Gilbert and Sullivan and the dangerous fireworks, but you should probably find out about them for yourself. It suffices to say that this is one of the most surprising fantasy books I have ever read and I hope you like or will like it as much as I do.

Jim Hopper Award for the illegal but adorable adoption of a little girl

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (London, 2015)

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Jo Robin

Northern Lights (His Dark Materials #1) by Philip Pullman

‘Northern Lights’ is the first novel in the fantasy series ‘His Dark Materials’ by Philip Pullman. It is usually described as a coming of age tale of two children, while they roam about through parallel universes. I don’t think this description even covers half of what is going on in these wonderful books. When I was only four years old, I visited the city for the first time and I thought it was absolutely magical: like magic could literally be behind any door there. This book starts off in the magical city of Oxford.

Oxford in a parallel universe is the same city of golden light, but zeppelins are the main mode of transport and anbaric power is used to fuel their green burning lamps. In this universe, humans’ souls walk beside them in the form of an animal, a physical manifestation of their inner-self, called daemons. In this world, there is a prophecy about a child who will determine the war to come. The Magisterium is the highest form of power there and has taken control of the governments, as an international theocracy, who obey the laws of the Authority. This religious body tries to control the universities and sciences as well, and Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, is often at odds with them.

But twelve-year-old Lyra knows nothing of this: she’s busy building castles out of mud and waging war with the Gyptian kids. When Lyra was only a baby, she was left at Jordan College by her uncle to receive her education there and Lyra takes great pride in her rich college home. Oxford is her whole world, but soon everything starts to change. Lyra becomes aware of the power struggles, between church and university, as she and her daemon Pantalaimon hide in the closet and witness someone trying to poison her uncle. She then learns about Dust, a subject greatly feared and forbidden by the Magisterium. At the same time, kids, especially the poor, keep disappearing from Oxford and rumours are going round that ‘the Gobblers’ are behind it. Later she meets the manipulative but gorgeous socialite Mrs. Coulter. This charming lady persuades the Master to ‘borrow’ Lyra, as an assistant for when she has to go back up North, to the icy plains of Svalbard. Lyra, up for any adventure, is more excited than ever! But before she leaves, the Master, who seems very worried, hands her an Alethiometer: a truth-measurer.

I want to get one thing straight first: Lyra Belacqua is not a nice girl. Yes, she was left by her uncle to grow up among the scholars of the prestigious Jordan College in Oxford. And, yes, she grows up without any parental guidance and there’s a lot of mystery surrounding who her parents are. And, yes, she is pretty much left to roam around the city, climb the roofs, get into fights and steal, lie and deceive. But she’s not sweet or cuddly, not even when you break through her tough exterior. She’s stubborn, wild and even manipulative. Lyra silver tongue is a cunning storyteller and a liar: absolutely untrustworthy. But she’s also incredibly determined and courageous, and even loyal to the right people. Lyra is so much more than a nice girl: She’s brilliant.

Soon Lyra finds out that people are not at all who they seem to be. She also discovers that she is far more important than just the slithering alley cat she thought she was. When she discovers her best friend Roger was taken by the Gobblers as well, she decides to rescue him. In the North, where the taken children are being kept, the mighty armoured bears rule the lands and the skies are the domain of the queen-witches. During her quest, Lyra meets a witch for the first time. Serafina Pekkala tells her of the prophecy and how the witches have always known of a child able to read the Alethiometer naturally. Along the way, they find out the Gobblers are actually agents of the Magisterium, performing an operation on these children called ‘intercision’. Much to everyone’s horror, intercision is the process of cutting the bonds between a child and its daemon, which is usually followed by great trauma and even death. So Lyra goes to war, with the help of an aeronaut, an army of Gyptians and an armoured bear.

A lot of critics have written that this book is a protest against all organised religion and the church itself. However, Philip Pullman is quite close with Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and he has stated that these books should be included in all religious-education courses. He argues that Pullman attacks the constrictive dogmatism used when religion tries to oppress, not Christianity itself, and I agree. The Authority, in Lyra’s world, is much like our God and the Magisterium is the church. But in Lyra’s world, there is not room for personal faith or a relationship with God, as the Magisterium seeks to control everything and everyone, even the other worlds! Even the sciences are called ‘experimental theology’ in that world. But what I find most interesting is the idea of Dust, the main subject of the series, in a way. Dust is what flows through your daemon into you. Dust is also what makes the Alethiometer, an instrument of truth, function. Dust is what makes kids’ daemons change shape and adults’ daemons settle into a permanent shape. Dust is, according to the Magisterium, original sin. Through intercision one can prevent Dust settling on children and help them before all kinds of unnatural and uncomfortable feelings and thoughts can bother them. Ergo, they cut away the soul before a child hits puberty. The cutting away of any sexual desire, and therefor sin, must sound familiar, but by no means do I feel like Pullman tries to force his ideas upon his readers. As a student of theology, I found this a fascinating part of the story.

The plot is simply brilliant. There are a number of twists and turns I never saw coming. Also the book is far more complex than the thoroughly lacking movie adaption (in my opinion), but you won’t get lost along the way. Pullman has a great talent of describing atmospheres: the cold north up in Svalbard, the golden city of Oxford and the horrible fear-filled air around Bolvangar, where the Gobblers have taken the children. The fantasy elements are of course the witches and the kingdom of the armoured bears up North, but his magic also lies in the steampunk green burning fires, in his theological approach to fiction and his great imagery. The supporting characters are equally interesting as the main protagonist. Pullman even manages to avoid all the clichés of parallel universes as you often see; his world is far more interesting, and therefor more plausible, than anything I’ve ever read before.

When I was young I loved the fact that Lyra was a little rat, a liar and genuinely a tough girl. As I grew older, I loved the fact that the book handled such diverse themes and worlds, even the underworld in the third book: The Amber Spyglass. I especially enjoyed his description of our world in the second book, The Subtle Knife, and the main character in that one. Now a new element has captured me and this is the way he has incorporated politics and theology into his fictional world, with his own thoughts on our politics and church quite clear. In short, this is a book you can read over and over and something new will peak your interest each time. Successfully, Pullman has written a book I loved when I was thirteen years old and a book that fascinates me now more than ever.

Budding theologian award: If this won’t awaken our theological instincts and fascinations, I don’t know what will…

Northern Lights (His Dark Materials #1), Philip Pullman (New York, 1995)

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Thura Nightingale