The latest ’His Dark Materials’ related instalment from Philip Pullman is an absolute triumph.
It seems that ‘Once Upon A Time In The North’ is not destined for the same fate as ’Lyra’s Oxford’. Initial hopes about that book had been high but restrained; for all its strengths, however, it was seen by many as a disappointment. ‘Once Upon A Time In The North’ is by comparison quite the converse.
Pullman has arguably produced some of his best writing… in his homage to Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, a continuance of his enthusiasm for westerns which has been found previously in so many of his writings. The themes found in this novella range from the restoration of justice and honour to simpler things such as friendship and lust. The book, as with much of Pullman’s writing, works on a number of levels and is guaranteed to satisfy all readers, regardless of age.
The plot is simple genius, playing on a number of key things which may have been noticed by the reader in the ’His Dark Materials’ trilogy, such as the foundations of Lee Scoresby and Iorek Brynison’s camaraderie, the story of how Lee acquired his balloon and rifle, and his love of the Arctic.
The writing is flawless and Pullman offers at times an excellent descriptive narrative but is able to contrast it at times with well paced story-telling. It never seems like even a single word is unnecessary and there is never a gaping absence to be found. The novella is one which manages to spectacularly encompass everything important – the reader may ask questions afterwards but they are unlikely to feel that what they seek should have been included. Pullman’s tale culminates with a first-rate bringing together of plot strands in a splendid, if somewhat unexpected ending.
The reader is not only offered a signature story by Pullman, but is given more with some intriguing additional material at the close of the novella regarding the path of Lyra’s education at Oxford. Is the dissertation she submits in fact about the tale just told? Is the novella intended to serve as Lyra’s scrap book as she goes about her education? It can only be hoped that the future books may inform the reader, but for the time being there is plenty of speculation to be had.
The physical book itself is beautifully bound in blue cloth and, despite its similarities to ’Lyra’s Oxford’, manages to look far more regal than its predecessor. The bonus material found within is a credit to Pullman and David Fickling Books – it is well presented and of excellent quality. The attached board game, ’Peril of the Pole’, is yet to be tested by the reviewer but appears at first sight a joy to play. The highlight must surely be the engravings by John Lawrence which are superb and accurately reflect the story throughout.
There is a genuine sense that Philip Pullman has taken his time in writing this novella, and that he has simultaneously taken the best elements from his past works and woven them together with his formidable story-telling. The book is fantastic – it is everything that fans had hoped for from ’Lyra’s Oxford’ and almost more than anybody had expected from the forthcoming ’Book of Dust’. We can only hope that future ’His Dark Materials’ publications are produced to a similar standard and that the levels of creativity found within ‘Once Upon A Time In The North’ are maintained throughout the developmental process.
This book can surely only be a success and is an outstanding read.
‘Once Upon A Time In The North’ will be released on April 3rd in the UK, Ireland and Japan, April 8th in the USA and Canada, and May 1st in Australia and New Zealand.
Reviewed by Ian Giles.