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Book Review: Once Upon A Time in the North

As a follow-up to the successful His Dark Materials trilogy of novels (adapted disastrously to film last year as The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman has published a new story entitled Once Upon A Time in the North. Although the story has been published in book form, don’t let that fool you into thinking you’ve got a big, meaty novel like Pullman has written before. Once Upon A Time in the North is a short story puffed out to 96 nominal pages with the insertion of some lovely engravings by John Lawrence and some “documents” associated with various plot points in the story. Also useful in getting Pullman’s story to 96 pages is the use of a large typeface and a rather small book size. The techniques are so transparent that I chuckle rather than grimace at them, but hey, you oughta know.

Within its modest size and scope, Once Upon A Time in the North is enjoyably entertaining. The size I’ve already described; the scope of the story is a set piece in one location with just one main character (Lee Scoresby) and only a handful of secondaries (including the adored and feared Iorek Byrnison). Despite being set in the Arctic North, this is a Western through-and-through: honorable and laconic gunslinger with a comic sidekick tumbles into a frontier town with suspicious townsfolk and a no-account politico hell-bent on destroying the way of life we hold so dear. Will there be a ruckus raised? Well, sure. Are we headed for a gunfight at high noon? It isn’t a spoiler to say “you betcha.” Is there a gal in the saloon? Sort of. OK, there’s a polar bear too, a first in the Arctic Western genre.

Pullman gets tedious only once in his story. In a heavy-handed effort to clue in those who haven’t read His Dark Materials, Pullman has our hero Lee uttering verbal doubletakes: “you mean they speak????” “armor?????” Otherwise, the author succeeds in pulling off a loping adventure with flair, or as close to flair as you can get in a tiny and icy port. War And Peace it ain’t, but an afternoon’s enjoyment under a cozy blanket isn’t anything to sneeze at, either. If you have enjoyed Pullman’s other books, pick this one up at your local library. Just be sure to grab another book to read after this tidbit’s been washed down.

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