Book review: Northern Lights

I finally finished reading the first book of His Dark Materials trilogy – yes, I know, two months for a single book is pathetic! – and it left me with ambivalent feelings.

The feelings are probably influenced by the fact that I saw the movie before I read the book, so I already had a few preconceptions and visualizations that were hard to shake faced with the slightly different narrative. But while the book certainly went to appreciable lengths to explain and set up the universe – compared to all the gaps that left me bewildered after watching the movie – it stopped well short of convincing me that the universe was fleshed out, and not just a fancy random flight of fantasy.

To put it bluntly, the characterizations were trifling, the emotions occurred quite suddenly and were discernible for only brief stretches, and the narration ambled from one event to the next without dispensing much effort on making the characters and the world they inhabit truly come to life.

The book’s hero, Lyra, is a pre-teen girl who on occasion exhibits remarkably wise behavior. We are being told explicitly by several people that she is “special” and a “key to this world’s survival”, but what we see of her behavior in the beginning – a stubborn, reasonably unruly and petulant, sparsely educated child – does not prepare us for her calculating and shrewd turns in outsmarting various adversaries, from an accidental interlocutor in a café to the king of armored bears to the Bolvangar’s personnel. In truth, the premise of Lyra having to save the world without being aware of her special place in the fabric of things sounds like an easy cop-out for the author to make her exhibit quite extraordinary behavior without establishing that she is suited for the task.

The entire narration as if through Lyra’s eyes does not seem natural for many stretches. You can plainly see an adult pretending to see the world through child’s eyes in the tone of the novel, and that dumbs the story down quite a bit.

Lyra’s emotions, when they figure in the proceedings, are overcome in a flash. Fear and confusion do peek through at intervals, but change into heroic steadfastness in the space of two sentences. If I know anything about pre-teen girls, it is that their emotions are constantly fluctuating, but that bad emotions tend to linger and take toll in the absence of positive external stimuli; in Lyra’s case, she is repeatedly able to master her occasional despair with positive thinking in a very mature way beyond her years. Must be a function of her as-yet unexplained “special” place in saving the world.

There’s also surprisingly little quantity of wonderment coming from the girl who spent her entire life in one place and is now thrust into wide-ranging adventures. Oh yes, locations, landscapes and natural phenomena are described in detail when necessary, but I cannot help but think that the descriptions are only supplied because the place in question itself is an actual participant in the proceedings, not because the author wants to make his universe live and breathe from the pages of the book. Lyra marvels at the new lands and happenings for a moment, and goes to attend to the next event at hand. With the exception of slightly more graphical description of the Aurora on the last pages of the book, the minimal time spent on stepping back to admire the scenery have a diminishing effect on my fascination with the place.

The clipped dialogues, though, are more jarring. Throughout the book, conversations consist of only momentous statements, as if every character is focused on progressing the plot and strives to make every utterance count. Someone says “Hello Lyra!”, and she responds with “What do you know about Dust?”…

Nowhere is the dialogue more incongruous than at the scene of the first Roping. The great assembly of all gyptians in the land ends up being limited to a couple of commanding statements by Lord Faa and a lone dissenting voice which is quickly and unconvincingly dismissed. And just like that, the assembly is adjourned within five minutes of having started. For a culture that clearly has more in common with real-life Roma Gypsies than just phonetic similarity, gathering in a place that approximates a temple for an authoritarian nearly-monologue event feels utterly bizarre.

A discourse between Lee Scoresby and Serafina Pekkala is the only conversation that stands in contrast to the minimalist dialogue approach. Yes, every question and answer in that conversation also have a purpose in furthering reader’s understanding of unfolding events, but the long-winded and repetitive way in which Scoresby attempts to elicit assurances from the witch makes their dialogue feel natural and flowing. Why can’t they all be like that?

Most of the characters never progress beyond being one-dimensional, but at least one characterization was fairly spot on. Lord Asriel in the movie version is largely a non-character, and there is little to suggest that he is less than a noble explorer. In the book, however, he appears in the beginning as a haughty, abrasive and contemptuous blue blood, – clearly an objectionable personage – so it does not come as a big shock that he is, in fact, a pretty bad guy who stops at nothing to achieve his purpose. (I realize that this is where the movie screwed up my perceptions: Having a Magisterium envoy attempt to poison Lord Asriel in the movie had the effect of marking him as an enemy of the implicitly bad Magisterium and, therefore, a good guy; having the Oxford Master perpetrate the deed in the book was a source of continuing bafflement for me until the true motives of Lord Asriel’s came to light.)

So, after I found many targets to scathingly critique, I guess I should summarize my view of the book as it is uneven. On one hand, it is at times an engrossing adventure built upon an interesting conceptual universe. On the other hand, the storytelling is rather superficial and inferior.

Nonetheless, I started the second book already. Becky provided me with an unintended spoiler, by expressing her dismay with how the entire trilogy ends. I am too intrigued to give up.

4 comments on “Book review: Northern Lights”

  1. Nathan

    I no longer feel like a dick because I’ve navigated all the way to England to personally welcome you to Whateveresque. And it’s not even my job. 😀

  2. Ilya

    Thank you, Nathan 🙂

    [for the rest of the unsuspecting crowd] I joined an online forum, and expressed my sadness that Nathan – who is not the forum’s proprietor – has recently disavowed his erstwhile “duty” of welcoming new members. Nathan then went out of his way to welcome me by virtue of this comment 🙂

  3. Becky

    Right…yes I have read the trilogy and I was outraged by the ending. Absolute rubbish-a complete waste of a weeks reading!

  4. Ilya

    I’ll let you know how I feel about that in hopefully just a few days, after I finish the last book, Beck.

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