Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman

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Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman

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Buy Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The adventures of a hot-air balloonist, and the inhabitants of an arctic town – human and ursine – he encounters. Not just a stop-gap to a fuller new Pullman, but neither a brilliant must-buy for everyone.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 112 Date: April 2008
Publisher: David Fickling Books
ISBN: 978-0385614320

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We at the Bookbag are always proud of our ability to give you the reviews no-one else is capable of. And stretching that remit to the limit comes a review of this fancy edition of a new, stand-alone work from the His Dark Materials world, by someone who has never actually read the main trilogy, or the prior, similar book, Lyra's Oxford. And so, with the hope that this is fully understandable without, and won't go to spoil the main, hugely successful books, we jump in.

A hot air balloon used for freight crash-lands outside a port town on a barren rock in the Arctic region. Stepping from it, a little embarrassed, is Lee Scoresby, adventurer, traveller, ladies' man. However here, in Novy Odense, he might be at the end of those travels, as he arrives a little short of coin or work, and the ladies can never manage to be warm, pretty and bright at the same time. However he might just find some form of adventure, as he gets swept up in the local political shenanigans, with a mayoral change imminent, and a whole rousting little-man-versus-big-evil-industry plot.

A lot of what follows, as the title suggests, is very much like a western story, but swept around the compass rose ninety degrees. Thus we have the stranger entering the small town, putting things to rights, and drifting on again. Thus we have a lot of stand-offs, as well. Plus we have a talking, armour-wearing polar bear.

The bear, and the hero, and several other factoids and things that arise I am sure are of importance to the whole saga, but as it stands I am not sure this offers a great deal to bear (tee hee) on the trilogy. And to think of it as a full work in itself, there are plusses and minuses.

What is most obvious is the clarity in the style, with the whole thing told very cinematically, from the poise of the shoot-outs to the political sloganeering, and the way Lee is reunited with someone from his past he could do without. This does however get a little too much in the main stand-off scene, with Pullman too pointedly telling us where everybody and everything is, but I am sure I could not depict all the salient points any better way myself.

There's a respectable level of invention in the book, and I don't mean the approach of the townsfolk to the polar bears and vice versa – I liked the melange of ages created by the wooden buildings and ships, and the large metal element that enters the story from the baddy side. However only a few minutes after finishing the story I wondered if the balance of everything was really as good as it should be – I was already registering awkwardness, in the amount of the book that was us discovering Lee, and that was Lee discovering Novy Odense, and the over-reliance on the tumbleweedy show-downs at the dockside.

This does of course all boil down to the fact that this is a short story, although it never reads like an unengaging fragment, a discard, a triviality. There is a lot to enjoy when tucked up in the world with the characters herein – all well-defined, and all pleasantly depicted. It's just afterwards there seems to have been a lack, and I guess, were one to have paid anything like the RRP of a tenner for the ninety minutes it takes at most to read, that might be more pronounced.

To alleviate all that, however, there is also a fab board game packaged in the back. Or at least a fab-looking one – you'll never get me cutting out the playing pieces and spoiling it. Which comes down to the fact that although I haven't read the main books, and have only seen the cinema trailer, I am proud to have this book on my shelves. I am a fan of the other Pullman books I have read, and I'm sure that if there are many particular clues in the story and addenda in this little book, I will one rainy day enjoy putting them together to the full core work.

Before then, I consider this book a full four star entertainment, and I note I am not alone online in considering the brevity and value level just as important as the temporary delights it provides. Some fans of the trilogy will certainly sniff at this, and wish for what we all want – a full-scale picture of what Pullman is writing next. However for many this book will be a delightful little extra for their collection, and an entertaining return to the Materials universe. For those readers, the book will earn at least another half a star, making a commendable four and a half, and a proper Bookbag recommendation.

We would like to thank David Fickling Books for sending us a review copy.

Buy Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman at Amazon.com.

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