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His Dark Materials is a series of fantasy adventure books which can also be called an epic. The books in the series include Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass in America) - 1995, The Subtle Knife - 1997, and The Amber Spyglass - 2000. The series is very controversial between different religious groups and some people consider it innapropriate for children. Even so, the series has gathered much recognition and many awards.

The Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Set in an alternate universe around the Victorian era, The Northern Lights by Philip Pullman follows the fortunes of a little girl named Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon. A dæmon is the physical manifestation of a person’s soul and assumes the form of an animal, which represents their personality. Children’s dæmons can change from form to form, which serves as a visual representation of their changing personalities and attitudes as they mature. Lyra Belacqua is a 12-year-old girl who lives in the academic and political jungle of Jordan’s college, Oxford University. She is viewed by scholars, professors and servants alike as an adopted daughter and is best friends with a young kitchen servant called Roger. When Lyra’s politically and academically revered uncle, Lord Asriel, visits the college a chain of events are set in motion that turn Lyra’s world upside down. An attempt on Lord Asriel’s life, mysterious disappearances of children, including Lyra’s friend Roger, and the appearance of Mrs. Coulter: a beautiful and cool minded lady, set in motion an adventure that will forever change Lyra’s life. Themes of religion, good versus evil and growing up are key in this book, and indeed in the subsequent novels of the His Dark Materials trilogy. The book is fast paced, easy to read and incredibly gripping for young and mature readers alike due to the layers of meaning and the themes and subthemes cleverly woven throughout the plot.

Reader's Reviews

Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman is a book that focuses on the life and adventures of Lyra Belacqua, a young orphaned girl in a fantastical world of magic, dust and demons. When Lyra finds out that her friend Roger has been kidnapped by the monstrous Gobblers, an evil group that kidnaps children from their beds, she embarks on a perilous globetrotting adventure to save him. Lyra will encounter friendly gyptians, mysterious scientists and the mighty armoured bears of the North Pole. Lyra is joined by her daemon companion Pan a shape changing animal that will help guide and protect her through the dark and dangerous world she explores. If you are wanting to read this with your child there are some issues to first consider. The language in the book is difficult at times and there are a lot of new words like ‘alethiometer’ which would likely be very difficult for younger children. Furthermore there is also quite a lot of graphic imagery later in the book which may prove to be upsetting for children, especially if those children struggle to deal with violence towards animals. Also the world it is set in though similar to our recent past it differs in many ways for example travel by blimp is common in this world.

However despite these issues the book is still very worth reading with your child. It is well written and suspenseful, once the child grasps the various forces and institutions that are present in the story, they will likely be very gripped by the story. Furthermore this story is very action packed and has a strong emphasis on adventure and exploring the world. Lyra is very brave and steadfast, she could serve as an especially good role model for young girls, as in spite of tradition she is doing the saving instead of a boy saving her.

The existence of the movie does pose a possible way around some of the initial issues that the story has in its early sections as it spends a larger amount of time focusing on explaining these potentially confusing elements. Meaning that your child could watch the story first and read the book second with a stronger understanding of the world. Thankfully the book and the movie are different enough that even if your child is reading the book after having watched the movie they will still draw a lot of enjoyment from the book.

Ultimately this book is highly rewarding and is a genuinely good though challenging read for older children. It is also interesting and adult enough to be enjoyed by those being read to, a rarity in children’s books. Very recommended.

Northern Lights is the first book of the series, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and is followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Northern Lights is an exciting piece of literature aimed at children in upper primary, though it is much loved by adults alike. I have always found the idea of humans having their soul personified as an animal companion fascinating, and as a child I spent hours imagining what animal form my own daemon would take. The exciting different elements of armoured ice bears, water folk, witches and parallel worlds have been twisted together in such a way that pulls the reader in to experience an adventure of a new and different nature. The story follows an orphan, Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon who live at Jordon College of Oxford University but in a parallel world to ours. Her life is turned upside down by a visit from her mysterious Uncle Asriel and she is thrust into a dangerous world controlled by a religious organisation where children disappear, witches and ice bears control the north and a beautiful, calculating woman, Mrs Coulter with an evil golden monkey daemon enter Lyra's life. This book has everything for anyone who loves adventure and I would recommend it thoroughly.

Warning of the issues of children raised in care and the other darker issues of child abduction and experiments carried out on children. Also warning on the strong religious factor which may go against religious beliefs of some faiths.

Set in an alternate reality earth, the book tells the story of Lyra Belacqua and her roundabout trip to the Arctic Circle in search of her uncle, Lord Asriel and her friend Roger. This literary quest provides the backdrop to a parallel plot regarding ‘Dust’, a quasi-magical substance that Lyra’s uncle Asriel has discovered and is obsessed with researching. The title comes from Lord Asriels idea that a reflection of the skyline of another world can be seen in the glittering Northern Lights. The books itself is very well written, with an impressively interesting plot ending in a significant plot twist that is bound to catch the reader off guard and leave them desperate to get hold of the second in the trilogy. Although some of the deeper themes may go over younger heads - for example there is a lot of complex religious imagery - there is still plenty to keep them going, and these complexities make it well worth a read for an older audiance too.

The language in the book, combined with some difficult conceptual ideas mean that this book is not suitable for the younger ages. Although classed as a ‘young adult’ fiction book, perhaps implying a teenage target demographic, I personally believe that this book is ideal for strong readers. As such I would recommend it for ages 10+, though I would definitely not recommend against it for younger readers who feel they are up to it. 

Books in the series

Parental Guidance

  • Reading Age: 12+
  • Read Aloud Age: ??

Goes strongly against Christian values and beliefs and involves deep philosophical and anti religious themes.

ex. In that world everyone's souls follow them around in an animal form instead of being in their body. Different people have different kinds of animals.

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