Lyra’s Oxford / Once Upon a Time in the North / The Collectors

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier instalments of this series. You can read my review of these novels [here], [here] and [here].

As there’s only a month to go before Philip Pullman releases his new and exciting novel, I thought that I should probably finish off my series of reviews of His Dark Materials. In previous posts, I’ve already taken a look at the main trilogy – Northern Nights (published in America as The Golden Compass – 1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000) – but today I’m going to be looking at the three companion stories that complement these.

All three shorts were published in separate short volumes – Lyra’s Oxford (2003), Once Upon a Time in the North (2008) and The Collectors (2014). They are each set in a different time period, with Once Upon a Time in the North and The Collectors being prequels to the main series, and Lyra’s Oxford set some years after the events of The Amber Spyglass. The collections also contain a number of other titbits, ranging from maps to newspaper clippings, some of which are reported to tie into Pullman’s upcoming The Book of Dust trilogy.

Lyra’s Oxford contains a short story called Lyra and the Birds, in which Lyra and Pantalaimon manage to protect a witch’s dæmon from a mob of angry starlings. The dæmon has come to Oxford in search of an alchemist who can save his partner’s life, however Lyra soon grows suspicious of his story. The alchemist is reported to be an unstable individual and there is clearly something that the dæmon is hiding from her. Just what is the dangerous secret that he is protecting?

Once Upon a Time in the North focuses on the adventures of a young Lee Scoresby and his dæmon, Hester. Scoresby has recently won a hot air balloon in a game of cards and is using it to explore the world. In this early adventure, he finds himself caught in a tense political situation that involves a politician who wants to wage war against the armoured bears, and a murderous gunslinger who bears a grudge against Scoresby.

The Collectors paints the creepy tale of a man who has come into possession of a pair of works of art – a painting of a young woman and a bronze statue of monkey. It is rumoured that if the two are separated, they will eventually find their way back to each other. However, the strangest thing is that when the collector shows the painting to his friend, he recognises the young woman as a former lover. Yet how can that be when the portrait is over eighty years old? The answer is stranger than he ever could have imagined…

Wow, sorry for the long intro. Before I take a look at each of these books in turn, I should probably note that these really are ones for the fans. While these stories could perhaps be enjoyed even if you hadn’t read His Dark Materials, you might not get a lot out of them. For example, the novels expect you to know what a dæmon is. If you don’t, you probably won’t understand why the gunslinger’s past crimes in Once Upon a Time in the North are so horrifying, or why the sight of the witch’s dæmon is frightening to some.

If you’re already a fan of His Dark Materials, I would also probably suggest splashing out and getting the hardcover editions of Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North. While the paperbacks do contain the short stories and most of the additional content, you really do miss out on the quality. The hardbacks are beautifully bound with fabric covers and have some lovely pull-out inserts like maps and board games. They’re obviously twice the price of the paperbacks but they make lovely collector’s items that look fantastic on the shelf.

Anyhow, let’s talk about the stories themselves. I wasn’t sure which order to tackle them in so I’ve decided to go in order of publication. This confusingly means that we’re going to be looking at the last story chronologically first!

Lyra and the Birds is, more than anything, a tease. It’s a mini-adventure for Lyra that brings back some of my fondest memories of Northern Lights. You have the slightly fantastical Oxford of Lyra’s world, the mundane everyday magic, and Lyra being her old, irresistible self. After feeling that Lyra’s personality was watered down in The Amber Spyglass, I particularly loved that this short story allowed her to be her confident and quick-witted once more.

However, as soon as it begins it’s over again. There aren’t even any real mentions to Lyra’s previous adventures, with only one brief reference to Will revealing anything of her prior heartbreak. While I obviously was not expecting an epic from such a little text, I was still left a disappointed. It just lacked the deeper philosophy of Lyra’s previous adventure, with its message about everything having hidden meanings delivered a bit heavy handedly in the opening paragraph.

The second short story – Once Upon a Time in the North – was also a bit of a mixed bag. Once again, the actual plot was a bit underwhelming. This one doesn’t even really feel as though it is part of the His Dark Materials series, coming across as more of a Western. While the story opens on a tale of political intrigue, it basically boils down to a gunfight between Lee Scoresby and his truly terrifying rival. It’s a very tense fight, but an action sequence nonetheless. The villainous Senator of the first act doesn’t even get his comeuppance in the end, fading out of the story when his role was fulfilled.

However, its saving grace is that it’s a story about Scoresby and he’s totally on form. As fans of Northern Lights will agree, Lee Scoresby is one of the most likeable and memorable characters of the series. He’s fast talking, intelligent and calm in the face of danger. His ability to talk his way out of sticky situations is just a joy to read (I especially loved the scene where he pretended to be the attorney of a disadvantaged sea captain). His relationship with Hester is also brilliantly portrayed, with her sarcasm forming a nice balance to his optimism.

The short story also features the first meeting between Scoresby and Iorek, though this wasn’t as integral to the plot as I had hoped. Iorek only really shows up towards the end of the book and there is no real moment that cements their friendship. While it’s nice to see this first interaction, I kind of wish that there had been more substance to it. Personal gripe, I know, but disappointing none the less.

Finally, there is The Collectors. At only 24 pages, it is the shortest of the companion stories and also the most loosely connected to His Dark Materials. Actually, to be fair, a quick bit of research has revealed that this book was never actually supposed to be tied to the series in the first place. Pullman wanted to write a spooky story and it was Audible that suggested connecting it to the bigger picture. Unfortunately, this really does show.

It’s kind of unfortunate, as I probably did enjoy this short story the most for its own merits. It’s competently written and very compelling, having a bit of the feel of an Edgar Allen Poe story. The one tie it does have to His Dark Materials is the subject of the painting, who is strongly hinted to be a teenage Mrs Coulter. However, this point didn’t make a lot of sense to me. If Mrs Coulter had a relationship with the collector in the story, when did this occur? Had Mrs Coulter travelled to the world in which this story is set before? Did this mean that she was aware of the multiverse before she met Lord Asriel?

Of course, The Collectors is over far too quickly to offer any real answers. While it does make an interesting supernatural story, it’s probably going to disappoint fans of the series who pick it up expecting to learn more about their favourite characters. The only real benefit is that this book only exists in eBook form, so you can snag yourself a copy for a mere 99p on Amazon.

Anyhow, that’s about all I have to say. These short stories really aren’t necessary reads but if you’re a fan of His Dark Materials, you may get a kick out of them. It’s nice to see beloved characters again and share briefly in their new adventures. And, who knows, perhaps these short stories will have ties to The Book of Dust. I suppose we will find out next month…

Lyra’s Oxford can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

Once Upon a Time in the North can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

The Collectors can be purchased as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Harriet Brown
    Jan 29, 2018 @ 14:35:43

    Thank you very much for your comments. I was undesided about sending a hardbound or paperback of “Lyra’s Oxford” to my granddaughter, along with the trilogy, and will get the hardbound.

    Reply

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