Friday, 10 April 2009

Once Upon A Time in the North - Philip Pullman

Read: May 2008

Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby is 24 and in search of adventure. And when he lands in Novy Odense, a small town in the frozen north, he finds himself in the midst of election fever, as the bright new mayoral candidate Ivan Dimitrovich Poliakov seeks to win populist support for his anti-bear policies. But behind the populist posturing, powerful corporate forces are at work, with oil their ultimate target. Tempestuous and ever eager, Lee and his hare daemon Hester are first courted by the powerful faction, but soon find themselves risking their lives to fight against the candidate and his shady entourage. And then, just in time, Iorek Byrnison appears to offer his powerful support.

Like Lyra’s Oxford, this is a short story published to fill the His Dark Materials gap until the long heralded Book of Dust is written. At less than 100 pages it is a brief adventure, barely an evenings read. It is fast flowing and enthralling, at times you remember just what a good writer Pullman is. It explains another piece of the His Dark Materials universe, depicting the meeting of Lee and Iorek, and offering an interesting insight into the Polar Bear history. There are moments of comedy: neither Iorek nor Lee can pronounce the others name, and Lee struggles to pilot his balloon. But at other times the plot races along at such a speed that you are not entirely sure what is happening. Like Lyra’s Oxford, it is too short to ever truly satisfy the voracious hunger of a His Dark Materials fan. It is a bitesize treat, not bad, but nowhere near as good as the real thing.

And the biggest problem is the price. How on earth do the publishers decide that this book should have an RRP of £9.99? Sure it is nicely presented: hardback, with woodcut illustrations and complete with a small game at the back. But essentially it is a collectors trinket, the sort of guaranteed easy sale that publishers love these days, a work that will sell on the brand rather than because it is any good. £9.99 is an absurd price for a book of this size – you can buy War and Peace for that much! Or how about 5 of Penguin’s Popular Classics at £2.00 each? Or save £3 and you could discover another great teenage fantasy series like Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines or Garth Nix’ Sabriel. £10 is a lot of money for something so slight.

Once Upon a Time in the North
is a nice, exciting evenings read. Buy it, if you like His Dark Materials you will love it. But there are many other books that you can buy that are much better value.

6 out of 10

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