Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Once Upon a Time in the North (book) by Philip Pullman

This book (novella?) takes place about 35 years before the events in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Having recently won a hot air balloon, Lee Scoresby and his rabbit daemon, Hester, fly to a place called Novy Odense in the hopes of finding someone in need of an aeronaut. What they find is a politician running on an anti-bear platform and a ship's captain in a bad situation. Lee, being the all-around great guy and adventurer that he is, helps out the people who need and deserve him most (i.e., the good guys) with thoughtful honesty, fast lying, and good shooting. This is also the first time he meets the bear Iorek Byrnison.

If you've stayed away from Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy because you were worried about the potentially anti-Christian aspects, or if you didn't want to deal with some of the heavy philosophical bits, then you're in luck - there's none of that here. This story is mostly just a vehicle for Lee, a likable character from the trilogy, to reappear for some adventure. If you really wanted to find a reason to hate this book, you might be able to argue that the politician is symbolic of Senator/Congressman/Mayor/Etc. So-and-so and it's an unfairly negative presentation. However, unless you decide to do something like that, this really isn't all that controversial. Lee is very attracted to and flirts with a young woman, and there's some bloody (but not gorily described) gunfighting, so I wouldn't recommend that the very young read this, but it's not going to possibly rock anyone's religious boat either.

Now that that's out of the way, here are some of the reasons to like this book. If you've actually read the His Dark Materials trilogy, you'll enjoy the appearance of two characters from the trilogy - Iorek and Lee Scoresby. You get to find out how Lee and Iorek first met, and what each of them was like when they were younger. The book also includes "reproductions" of letters, book pages, etc., that make Lee's world and his story seem even more like something that actually happened. Although almost everything in the book is from 35 years before the trilogy, the last few "reproductions" are from after the trilogy - letters from Lyra and the form she filled out to submit her dissertation. That's right, Lyra's apparently being a good, scholarly girl now.

If you haven't read the trilogy, you might not feel as much connection to the events and characters, but you may still like this book for Lee's fast-talking and the gun-fighting action. Also, the weirdness of an anti-bear political campaign should be a draw - the trilogy gives much more information about the bears, but, if you don't know about them, this aspect of the story should be nicely mysterious and maybe even funny. Lee doesn't know about the bears either, and his reaction to the idea of talking bears is amusing.

Oh, also, this book apparently includes a board game, but since I got my copy from the public library the board game has been removed. I can't say whether the game is enjoyable or not.

  • The Airman by Eoin Colfer - Conor Broekhart wants nothing more than to design flying machines and take to the air himself. However, young Conor is imprisoned after he is falsely accused of the murder of King Nick. In the coming years, he plans his elaborate and dangerous escape - but what will he do after that? Like Lee, Conor lives for the air. Although this book is a bit slower than Once Upon a Time in the North, it's got its own tense moments, action, and planning. I originally listened to the audio version of this, and the reader did an excellent job, so if you like audio books I'd suggest trying this one out.
  • Firefly (live action American TV series) - A motley group flies through space looking for work. Most of what they do is illegal (like stealing), but if it gets them money they don't mind so much. It's a bit like a Western in space. I know, I know, this isn't a book, but I'm trying to stick with things I've read or seen when I come up with these lists, and I don't read much adventure. Besides, the captain, Mal, at his gun-toting, fast-talking best reminds me a little of Lee Scoresby.
  • The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman - If you enjoyed Once Upon a Time in the North and you haven't read the His Dark Materials trilogy yet, you should, starting with The Golden Compass. You may not agree with the things Pullman has to say about religion, and the philosophical aspects might be a little daunting, but that doesn't mean this isn't a fun series. In the first book, a young girl, Lyra, and her daemon go on a journey in order to figure out why children are going missing. She is aided by the many friends she makes along the way, as well as a mysterious alethiometer, which can answer just about any question if you can figure out how to use it.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa - Two young brothers pay a horrible price when they break the most important rule of alchemy - the law of equivalent exchange - by trying to bring their mother back from the dead. Since that time, the brothers have been trying to find the Philosopher's Stone, hoping it can help them restore their bodies and undo the damage they have done. As in Once Upon a Time in the North, this takes place in an alternate world that occasionally feels like our world as it might have been several decades ago. There's plenty of danger and action, although this series has a decent amount of introspection, as well. Both the manga and the anime are good, although the anime differs greatly from the manga after a certain point.

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