Northern Lights is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. It is set in a world where people’s spirits take animal form and live alongside them. The spirit is a reflection of its person’s nature. A child’s spirit can change shape but loses this ability once the child passes adolescence. A person and their spirit will have conversations just as we might talk to ourselves mentally, although usually nobody hears us doing it.
The main character in Northern Lights is a girl called Lyra. About 12 years old, she lives in Jordan College in the Oxford, England of her world. She doesn’t seem to have any parents and pretty much runs wild. One day a woman called Mrs. Coulter visits the college and offers to take Lyra with her. Before Lyra leaves, the Master of the college gives her an ‘alethiometer’, a device that shows you the truth. This is the Golden Compass that gave the book its American title.
Children have been disappearing from all over England. Lyra runs away from Mrs. Coulter and is taken in by some ‘gyptians’, people who live on narrowboats. They plan to go North to find the children and rescue them. Lyra goes with them and is horrified when she learns why the children were taken.
I found Northern Lights a thought provoking book. I liked the idea of animal spirits and found myself wondering what mine would be. Some people describe the book as anti-religion. I actually felt that it was against any system that dictates what its followers are allowed to think and/or believe in, the kind that will do anything to protect itself and its power base. I enjoyed Northern Lights so much that I went straight to the next book in the series, The Subtle Knife.