Fantasy is a genre full of paradoxes. It should be the most varied, inventive and constantly surprising of any form of fiction. It should be limitless – there are no boundaries that the author's skill can't navigate, no confines save their imagination. Yet this so often fails to be the case. Fantasy has become a world filled to the brim with cliché and parody, empty of everything besides carbon copies of carbon copies. Tolkien's vision, while hugely daring and original in its own time, has been watered down and imitated so many times that we too often believe that elves, dwarves and orcs are all fantasy has to offer us.
So, with that in mind, it's rewarding and refreshing to find that fantasy can still challenge the preconceptions of the genre, shake off what has become an embarrassing reputation and produce something genuinely special.
Lyra Belaqua is our heroine here, and an unlikely one at that. To kick off what transforms into a hugely unconventional novel, we have as a heroine an uncouth, dishonest, half wild little orphan girl who lies, cheats and steals; since she was left at Jordan College as a baby after the death of her parents, she has never once done as she was told by the Scholars who take care of her, and yet you fall in love with her from the beginning. Along with her dæmon Pan, Lyra lives a carefree life in Oxford, in a world that isn't completely unlike our own, only dimly aware of a growing rumour that around England children are disappearing. Until this rumour reaches into her life when her best friend Roger goes missing and she recklessly vows to find him.
Northern Lights begins with the fairly simple premise of a wilful young girl determined to find her friend, despite the overwhelming odds against her. But it quickly transforms into a complex, transcendent novel, with a backdrop of physics, metaphysics, religion and philosophy skilfully woven around Lyra's adventure. The subtle differences between our world and Lyra's are inventive and yet natural, treading a fine line between being startlingly creative and yet never upsetting the flow of the story. The aforementioned "dæmons" are one of the most inspired of all – a dæmon being the physical manifestation of a person's soul, connected to them by an invisible bond and, up until adolescence, able to transform at will until the human reaches puberty and the dæmon settles on a form that represents the nature of the human. The dæmons of servants tend to be dogs, those of witches are birds; and the novel's principle villain, the deceptively sweet Mrs Coulter, has a beautiful golden monkey which openly demonstrates the sadism that she herself keeps well hidden behind charm and beauty. It is a phenomenon that is entirely fictional and yet feels so real that, when the fate of the missing children is finally revealed, the horror and revulsion it evokes in Lyra is just as vividly felt by the reader.
It's a novel that has courted with controversy ever since its publication and it isn't hard to see why. Though the face of villainy in Northern Lights is Mrs Coulter, the force behind her is the tyrannical Magisterium, the equivalent of our own Catholic Church. It is portrayed as cruel, domineering and repressive, inflicting unspeakable torments on kidnapped children in the name of avoiding original sin. Such complex and sensitive ideas set Northern Lights apart from its contemporaries in the "young adult" category, but the pacing and plot are never sacrificed for heavy-handed moralising. It is that rarest of things – a novel that manages to be both incredibly clever and exciting at the same time. Pullman's message about the dangers of organised religion is told through a thrilling plot and believable, compelling characters – it never feels like a lecture.
However, it must be said that for a young adult novel, some parts of Lyra's journey are fairly dark. Mrs Coulter is a genuinely unsettling villain, all the more so for her masquerade and unclear intentions. And the truth behind the kidnapped children (especially the manner in which Lyra discovers this truth) is more than a little disturbing. This is not a novel that subscribes to the golden rule of fiction that the children always survive. Although not necessarily a "scary" book, children with a more sensitive disposition – and especially those prone to mulling things over long after the last page has been turned – may find this a distressing read.
Perhaps for this reason, this is a young adult book that, like Harry Potter, has seized the attention of an adult audience just as surely as its target market. Daring, original and incredibly brave, Northern Lights is many things, but it is never dull, never preachy and never, ever clichéd.