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Once Upon a Time in the North

Review

Once Upon a Time in the North

One day, a young pilot crash-landed his balloon in a small town in the frozen Arctic. Lee Scoresby was hoping that someone in Novy Odense would hire him and pay him enough money so he could venture on to another destination. But he had landed in the tense and rough town during a critical political election. Soon, he was privy to corruption and found himself in danger. His escape is the dramatic climax of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH by Philip Pullman, a prequel to the amazing His Dark Materials trilogy.

Lee Scoresby is the same Texan aeronaut who comes to the aid of Lyra and the others in the series. He is, by that time, a friend of an armored bear named Iorek Byrnison. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH tells of how they became comrades and gives some background on both of these important Pullman characters. Readers will actually learn more of Iorek Byrnison's story, even though Scoresby is the hero and center of the book.

Although the book is set many years before Scoresby enters the battle over Dust in the trilogy, readers will recognize him as the same loyal, cunning and kind figure. In Novy Odense he finds himself in the midst of an oil and mining company's attempt to strong arm the community and elect one of their own to public office, thus ensuring they have full access to all the recently discovered oil and all the power over the townspeople. A shady journalist, a crooked politician and his beautiful daughter, as well as a mysterious killer from Scoresby's past, all make his time in the northern town a dangerous adventure.

But a ship owner, tired of being thwarted by Larsen Manganese, the unethical oil company, teams up with Scoresby, and the two of them bring the bear Iorek Byrnison into the mission to free the ship. The action brings Scoresby face to face with a man who wants to kill him, but the smart and tough Scoresby won't go down without a fight.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH is a short but exciting book --- just a glimpse into the world that unfolds in His Dark Materials to be a battleground between good and evil, greed and kindness. Lee Scoresby is a perfect guide to this world where tension is mounting but character and integrity are forces for positive change. It is also, like the other books in the series, dark and enchanting.

The engravings by John Lawrence lend a lightness to the story while linking it with old western tales. Inclusion of excerpts from “primary materials,” such as Scoresby's flight manual, shipping slips and newspaper clippings add an interesting air of authenticity to this lovely book. Included, too, is Peril of the Pole, also illustrated with Lawrence's engravings. It is a paper replica of a board game mentioned in the book itself.

Though very different in tone and content, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH contributes successfully to the parallel world that Pullman has created in his other books and will engage readers young and old.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 18, 2011

Once Upon a Time in the North
by Philip Pullman