Once Upon a Time in the North concludes my #10booksofsummerchallenge

Yes, you have just read my title correctly, I’ve finished the summer reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 Books! Philip Pullman’s novella is the one I kept for last and I finished it in one sitting.

There are still five days to the challenge deadline. No last minute race against the clock for me, I’m calm: I’m sorted. This is unheard of. So, why is it that I don’t feel efficient?

Maybe because I was a little, just a little, disappointed in the book I’d looked forwards to.

As an object, it is delightfully bookish. A lot of thought went into the design and manufacture. For a start, it’s hand-sized. If it had followed standard dimensions, it would have been a narrow volume.

Because it’s short in height, there are more pages, and the spine is wide enough to display the author, title and publisher, comfortably. It looks attractive on the shelf. If I were into interior design, I could imagine wanting a row of them, in matching and contrasting colours.

I wanted to read it. I’ve been savouring the moment of beginning since several months before this challenge started.

The inside reminded me of expensive notebooks, the paper is just that quality that demands such neat perfection I would worry about making the first mark. This is not just a book to own, or to treasure, it’s an artefact that might have come from the parallel universe it describes.

The lovely woodcut illustrations, by John Lawrence are part of the other-wordly charm. The larger ones are footnotes to the action, the thumbnails are story divisions. There are no numbered, or named, chapters. It’s a book that demonstrates how the combination of paper, ink and content can enhance a reading experience.

After the story ends, there is an appendix. Newspaper clippings, letters, year-book extracts, rules for a game and an academic certificate are included. While this book is a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy for the readers in this universe, in the universe it describes, What we’ve read is an historical document.

It wasn’t only the quality of the paper that kept me turning the pages. The story was nicely paced, right from the opening line.

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

It’s a pretty spectacular entrance for Lee Scoresby and his daemon, Hester. They’re drifters, in the best American western tradition. Having won his balloon in a poker game, Lee is ‘blown by the winds of chance‘ into Novy Odense, in the Arctic, a place that ‘looked like a place where there was work to be done.’

The first thing he establishes on landing is that the work he’s looking for is not about striking it rich in the expected manner. He’s not there because of the ‘oil rush‘, even if he does look to the locals like ‘a roughneck‘. The question at the opening of the book, then, is what does Lee Scoresby want?

The journey to finding that out includes a few false starts, and blind alleys. Tension builds, shifts and rebuilds. There is a neatly plotted rise in tension.

There is a ‘but’, for me, though.

His Dark Materials were also books of ideas. Soon after they were published discussion began on what was happening below the surface of the action. The story included, if the reader chose to look, additional layers to interpret. It was perfectly acceptable to race through the adventure without recognising anything else happening, of course. But for some of us, the icing on this cake was recognising references, and identifying how they worked.

Although the Dark Materials trilogy was sold in the children’s section, most reviews claim it was written without a specific audience in mind. If I’d checked some other reviews before starting this novella, I would have realised that despite the film references, Once Upon a Time in The North is a book for children. It wasn’t a disappointment, this is beautifully written and paced.

But I probably won’t be tempted by any more of the spin-offs, despite the tactile design.

38 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in the North concludes my #10booksofsummerchallenge

  1. Congratulations on completing the summer reading challenge. Well done. This book looks like it is well packaged and sounds delightful. I think if one knows it is geared toward child readers, one would look at it differently.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes. That’s exactly where any regrets I have lie. It is a beautifully imagined and worded story. I try not to look books up before-hand to avoid spoilers, but this is the drawback, I make my own assumptions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I treat this, Cath, and Lyra’s Oxford, differently from the novels. They’re artefacts — the original hardbacks, that is, not the paperbacks — souvenirs, scrapbooks that happen to contain a tight little story that adds to the HDM world without being essential parts of it.

    Yes, they’re not as satisfying, I agree, and I’ve reread both to see if I was missing any quintessence, but I suspect there isn’t.

    Effectively they’re stepping stones between text novels and graphic novels, the latter genre being one that Pullman appears to enjoy.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I think you’re right, Chris. It is such a beautiful artefact, and as you say, a different style of reading is needed. I’ve not really got to grips with graphic novels yet, maybe I need to explore a little more. I was fond enough of comics, all those years ago when they weren’t considered ‘good’ reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There’s ‘graphic novels’ and there’s ‘graphic novels’, and like text novels (is that a suitable contradistinction?!) the range and quality is enormous.

        I’ve read and reviewed only a few so I’m no expert, but I have to say — seeing what you’ve just reviewed — that the adaptation of Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’ was so-so (in that I’d rather read the original)** while his ‘The Adventures of John Blake’, specifically written to be a graphic novel was a much more handsome affair (though had mixed reviews from aficionados: https://wp.me/p2wf1i-35E).

        ** Jake Hayes of Tygertale reviews it here: https://wp.me/p2wf1i-19j

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for that pointer, Chris. Just had a quick skim through the Jake Hayes review and I see what you mean. There’s a real charm to the extracts, that I’m prepared to be convinced. But I think I’ll look to start with something that’s intended as graphic, rather than an adaptation, so thanks (again) for the John Blake suggestion. I’ve still got a Christmas book-voucher to spend, maybe this is what I’ve been hoarding it for.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Maybe it didn’t live up to expectation because it was a prequel? They’re not supposed to stand on their own. I was certainly enticed to try his dark material even with the negative aspect of this little prequel.
    Congrats on completing your summer read!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Paula. I do admit to feeling a little bit like a cheat, as once I’d read the first three books, I realised that half of my chosen titles were a lot shorter than I’d guessed – I didn’t check the font sizes, so I had more quick-reads than I intended.
      I’m guessing your challenge was a little more rigorous – and you did say there was flexibility in the rules, so maybe you’ll extend your deadline…

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Well done, Cath šŸ™‚ No great surprise (to me that is) that I am way off making my target even without the writing of reviews. I am so easily carried away by the prospect of making lists! That said, I’ve not done badly and I’ve read more so far this year than in the whole of last year so I’m happy enough.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Well done to you, too, then Sandra. I think it’s the quality of the reading that should count, in any challenge, and if we’re racing through just to reach the end of our list, then I’m sure our levels of engagement would suffer.

      I know what you mean about the making of lists, I love them.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. You did well Cath. Congrats. Never mind the fact some of the titles were shorter. It’s the making that time to read that counts. You’ve covered a huge amount of ground, made great choices and provided a lot of insight. All that takes time too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well done on completing the challenge. I still have a long way to go. Not that I haven’t been reading, but I’ve been reading books that are not on my list. Isn’t the feel and look of a book nearly as satisfying as the contents? Like looking at and holding a work of art.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Lynda. Maybe you should swop the ones you have read for the ones you were going to read…
      I think you’re right about the way to view some quality books. This one does feel like art, and in it’s way it was satisfying. My problem was in expecting it to be something it was never intended to be – that’ll teach me to be stubborn about checking out what I’m about to read.


  7. Hmmm. I’m intrigued by this prequel all the more from your words. Not that I’ll jump on it right now, but if I see it at the library, I won’t say no.

    I get your point about His Dark Materials, though. There’s something about having a story with much to say vs. simply having a story. It’s not that one’s better than the other, but it is a…a shift, esp when one *expects* one and gets the other. it’s a shift that’s not always wanted.

    Liked by 1 person

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