Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's Once Upon a Time in the North

Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: April 8th, 2008
Format: Hardcover, 104 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lee Scoresby has set his balloon north in the hopes of finding some work. He's recently become an aeronaut, having won the balloon on a hand of poker. Though teaching himself has been a little hairy, something his hare daemon Hester would agree with, what with the balloon coming with only half a copy of The Elements of Aerial Navigation. One day he will find an intact copy of that valuable guide, until then as he lands in Novy Odense his number one goal is to line his pockets, which are perilously empty. And in a town built on every kind of oil imaginable not to have enough for a drop to fix his pistol feels downright shameful to Lee, so he sets out in search of some job leads. Stowing his balloon he walks to the nearest bar to look for employment and to wet his whistle and realizes he's walked into a town in the midst of an upheaval. There's to be an election that week for mayor and the incumbent looks to lose to the ex-senator Poliakov who's taken a strong anti-bear stance. Poliakov is a cunning man who is working with the powerful Larsen Manganese mining company which has supposedly just struck it rich in Novy Odense. All this Lee learns from a rather chatty poet, Sigurdsson, who happens to make his money as a journalist. While all these political machinations should be of some concern to Lee he's more interested in a distressed sea captain in the bar. Lee's interest in this man will put him in the center of all Novy Odense's problems and unit him with a powerful ally, the armoured bear, Iorek Byrnison.

While I picked up Once Upon a Time in the North when it first came out almost a decade ago I couldn't bring myself to read it because at the time this slim volume was THE END. This would be it from Philip Pullman with regard to his magnum opus, His Dark Materials. There were rumors and whispers that there would eventually be more but until the announcement this spring I just couldn't bring myself to read this story about when Lee and Iorek first met. I couldn't take the heartbreak that their story was over even if this was just the beginning chronologically. But what's odd is I'm really glad I waited. The book isn't just a great read, it's so relevant now that it is shocking. I mean it couldn't be more timely and it made me wonder, does Philip Pullman actually have an alethiometer? To so accurately depict the political climate almost a decade in advance is spooky. There's an election with Russians causing havoc, there's a charismatic leader whose entire platform is the removal of illegal immigrants taking jobs from the community in order to secure his win while really he's there to aid big business and the military industrial complex and line his pockets all the while having thugs working for him behind the scenes with his own personal army and the press in his pocket. I mean, seriously!?! Russians! Poliakov/Trump! Bears/Mexicans! Novy Odense Courier and Telegraph/Breitbart! It's spookily accurate. But what this does is rise the book from not just a story with bears and balloons into a fable for our time. Fairy Tales are there to teach people lessons, and I think the lessons shown here are ones that need to be taken to heart so we never end up in this situation again.

Yet the book wasn't all relevant to today, after all Lee Scoresby is a cowboy and a Texan through and through so Once Upon a Time in the North also deals lovingly with all the wonderful western tropes we've come to love to this very day. There's a reason Westworld would work in the real world as well as on the screen. Lee has a soft spot for the ladies yet he's honorable, giving advice to lonely women while not tarnishing their virtue. He's a crack shot, when his gun actually works. He has a weakness for gambling, but luckily with Hester by his side she'll keep him on the straight and narrow. He does what is right even if it gets him into a whole heap of trouble. Plus, there's something about a cowboy in a situation that is so beyond his ken that calls to me. Like Ethan Chandler on Penny Dreadful, he's without a home and in a foreign land and falling into a dangerous adventure but his moral compass will steer him right. There is also a villain from Lee's past! Poliakov has one Mr. Morton in his pay, an assassin from America whom Lee had a previous run-in with, though he knew him by the name of McConville. They had a set-to in Dakota Country that had elements of Deadwood and more than a dash of Pinkerton justice gone wrong. Like Dashiell Hammet's Red Harvest, there's a trail of bodies in this man's wake, friends of Lee, and Lee isn't about to let him get away this time. With the politics and the vengeance I feel that this book actually can stand on it's own. In fact, I think that not only can anyone read it, but that this would be a good starting point for anyone considering reading Philip Pullman's work. Yes, there are some spoilers, but the microcosm of characters is so rich that I would recommend Once Upon a Time in the North to anyone. Even those skeptical of fantasy.


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