22. Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman (2008) 103 p.
The reason Northern Lights was the best book out of the entire trilogy His Dark Materials was the world it was set in. Philip Pullman weaved one of the most complex and enjoyable alternate universes I’ve ever read: a 19th century-style world on the brink of an industrial revolution, dominated by a Calvinist Church. A world of adventure and antiquity, where university professors discuss scientific expeditions from the comfort of Oxford smoking rooms, where the outskirts of civilisation are ruled by witches and sapient polar bears, where every human is accompanied by an animal spirit representing their inner soul.
As short as it is, Once Upon a Time in the North gives us a welcome return to that world – in particular, to the rugged and dangerous Arctic wilderness that was the setting for most of Northern Lights. The story is set thirty-five years before the trilogy, and details the first meeting of the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby and the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison. Lee crash-lands his balloon on a frozen Russian island in the midst of a mayoral election, and is quickly pulled into the web of politics and power struggles between the Russian customs agency and the security forces of the local mining corporation.
This is mostly a short adventure story, with a nice setting and nifty action scene. The only part I disliked was the actual meeting of Lee and Iorek itself, which supposedly the entire book revolves around. Lee agrees to help a Dutch ship captain battle the unjust ruling of the harbourmaster, and Iorek joins them simply because he was nearby and wanted to help for no apparent reason. The rest of the story is solid, though – I especially liked the worldbuilding for North America that was detailed in Lee’s past, since the alternate New World never really got a look-in during the main trilogy.
As with Lyra’s Oxford, the previous supplement book, the text is scattered throughout with “fragments” relating to the storyline: a few pages from a navigation manual, a label from a bottle of cognac, a cargo receipt and so on. These add welcome touches to the book, as do the frequent illustrations done in an appropriate Nordic woodcut style.
Overall, a nice little addition to the collection, albeit at an exorbitant price. I just wish he’d hurry up and finish the Book of Dust already.