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Philip Pullman – Once Upon a Time in the North

April 14, 2008

51. Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman (2008)
His Dark Materials, prequel story/companion

Length: 104 pages

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Started: 14 April 2008
Finished: 14 April 2008

Summary: Lee Scorsby, a newly-minted aeronaut of twenty four, broke and looking for work and adventure, lands his balloon in a small northern industrial town. There are some shady politics going on in town, and when Lee finds himself caught in the middle, he’ll have to shoot his way out, with the help of his new ally Iorek Byrnison.

Review: A short companion story to the main His Dark Materials trilogy, similar in style and format to Lyra’s Oxford, which was published a few years ago. It’s short – only one hundred-odd pages, including some woodcut-style illustrations – and although it wasn’t quite short enough to finish during the time I was waiting for an oil change, it wasn’t much off the mark. The main strength to this book is its excellent job of setting the tone and mood of the place – the grimy, dark, industrial town is vividly painted and very real. The main weakness to this book was that there wasn’t really that much incentive to care. We know Lee gets out alive, and while the story itself fine, it’s nothing special, and the only people who are going to be interested are those who are desperate for more of Lyra’s universe. I loved the His Dark Materials trilogy, but these additional snippets of story aren’t really satisfying my expectations, and the justification for their existence seems more to cash in on the popularity of the main books than based on any outstanding merit of their own. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: For rabidly die-hard fans of the original series, it’s probably worth reading. For mild-to-moderate fans of the original series, if it gets put into your hands, it’s not a bad read, but I wouldn’t put much energy into seeking it out. For everyone else, I wouldn’t bother.

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First Line: The battered cargo balloon came in out of a rainstorm over the White Sea, losing height rapidly and swaying in the strong northwest wind as the pilot trimmed the vanes and tried to adjust the gas-valve.


  • p. 1: “The pilot was a lean young man with a large hat, a laconic disposition, and a thin mustache, and at present he was making for the Barents Sea Company Depot, whose location was marked on a torn scrap of paper binned to the binnacle of the gondola.” – a stand or enclosure of wood or nonmagnetic metal for supporting and housing a compass.
  • p. 15: “Once aloft in the empyrean, with both gas and ballast in reserve, the aeronaut has little to fear.” – the visible heavens; the firmament.
  • p. 60: ““Mr. Johnsen, would you go and bring my rifle and the box of ammunition from the lazaret, if you please.”” – a small storeroom within the hull of a ship, esp. one at the extreme stern. Also called the “glory hole”. (Hee! Okay, I’m twelve.)
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