REVIEW: Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

When I was a teenager, I didn’t read YA. I read ‘grown up’ books and thought YA was for kids. (Note that I’ve since seen the light, and I now read so much YA that I ended up writing it.) However, back when I was 11 or 12, one of the only exceptions to my uninformed ‘YA is for kids’ rule was His Dark Materials. It’s one of the first books I can remember finishing and immediately demanding that my mum buy me the next.

It’s the book I always think of when people talk about crossover YA: books that can be read by both adults and kids. Harry Potter is usually the obvious example of this, but I don’t think Northern Lights gets enough credit.It’s incredible to me that Pullman managed to write a book about such huge concepts – alternative universes, interdimensional travel, religion, war between races, heaven and earth, the creation of the universe – in a way that captivated the interest of both twelve year olds and adults alike. I can’t imagine how to even start explaining those kind of concepts to children, but Pullman pulls it off with flair and imagination.

His Dark Materials is a genuine epic, in every way, and that kind of huge and all-encompassing world building is something I try to encapsulate with my writing – a book shouldn’t just be about one thing, and Northern Lights is the perfect example of this, including everything from alcoholic bears to immortal witches to hares with hot air balloons to college professors. And that’s just the first book in the trilogy!

As a twelve year old, I was particularly taken with a character from The Amber Spyglass, Mary Malone, a protagonist who is a female physicist. She was a huge inspiration to me, and I probably wouldn’t be spouting hyperbole to say that she is one of the characters who encouraged me to go on to study Physics at university.

In fact, every book in the trilogy features vivid and realistic female characters, from the sharp and unfathomably brave Lyra to Mrs Coulter (strong female characters don’t have to be Good) to Serafina Pekkala. I can’t express how important this was to me growing up, and I’ve rarely come across another book which writes women so well, even after another decade of reading.

More than anything, I feel so lucky to have found this book at exactly the right age. If I’d read it for the first time now, at the grand old age of 22, it wouldn’t have had half the impact on me as it did at 12. Some books find you just when you need them, and Northern Lights was that book for me. It formed my opinions about literature, science, imagination, religion, and a huge number of other topics.

I wouldn’t be the person I am without it – I might not have even done the same degree course. It’s not often you can say that about a book. And for that, however many other books I read and consider my favourites, Northern Lights will always have a place in my heart.

I reviewed Northern Lights for my book club, The Whackademics. You can read the rest of the reviews by Alice Oseman, Catherine Doyle, Louise O’Neill and Sara Barnard here, and find out what our daemons would be! 

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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