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The Shadow in the North
Philip Pullman
Scholastic Point, 286 pages

The Shadow in the North
Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman says that he is not a writer but, rather, that he writes stories, and considers this distinction critical. As a child, he loved radio serials, Superman, Batman, and especially ghost stories. A graduate of Oxford University with a degree in English, he has written novels, plays, and picture books for readers of all ages. He is the author of the highly acclaimed trilogy, His Dark Materials.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Count Karlstein
SF Site Review: The Subtle Knife

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nathan Brazil


"His prominent eyes were direct and disconcerting. They gave no hint of mood, humour or temper; they rarely blinked, yet they weren't dead; they were electrically intense."
The Shadow in the North was originally published in a slightly different version back in 1986. Almost twenty years later, its author is widely celebrated as being among the greatest writers of children's fiction working today, and is best known for His Dark Materials trilogy. This early work shows that Phillip Pullman achieved an early mastery of his craft. It is the second novel in a quartet featuring Sally Lockhart, but like the others, works very well as a stand-alone. Pullman describes these stories as being "historical thrillers, old-fashioned Victorian blood-and-thunder. Deliberately written with a genuine cliché of melodrama right at the heart of it, on purpose." The cliché employed in The Shadow in the North is a madman with a weapon that could change the course of global history.

Sally Lockhart is a Financial Consultant, who along with her part-time boyfriend, photographer Frederick Garland, is an amateur private detective. Pullman's skill imbues this seemingly uninspired pair with vitality and presence, and weaves around them a story which would make a wonderful movie. At turns mysterious, exhilarating, moving and humorous, it's a tale in which every cast member is made to matter, both to one another and the reader. There are scenes which, in a lesser author's hands would have been maudlin and unconvincing. But when Pullman yanks our heart strings, it feels almost as real as if events had happened to someone we know personally. Themes of love, loyalty and loss run behind the main plot, but never get in its way. Anyone who has experienced such emotions first hand cannot fail to be impressed with the author's depth of understanding, and his ability to subtlety combine these underlying elements with the action in ways that strengthen both. The plot itself involves Victorian crime, political conspiracy, murder most foul and stage trickery to rival the pioneering British magician, Jasper Maskelyne. Lurking at the heart of everything is the terrifying Hopkinson Self-Regulator, an invention which forms the basis of a super-weapon, being developed by Scandinavian arms dealer and industrialist, Axel Bellmann. As leading villains go, Bellman is one of the best, and frightens as much by the threat of what he could do, as by what he actually sets into motion. Sally, accompanied by her part werewolf guard-dog Chaka, and her collection of friends, takes on the seemingly unstoppable industrialist, with a result that includes a heart-breaking twist.

The Shadow in the North is a tremendously literate work, precisely paced and just the right length. It is so rare to find such a wonderful balance in a comparatively short novel, that I have no hesitation in recommending this book as a must read for anyone who hasn't yet tried Pullman's work, or who has read His Dark Materials and is looking for more of the same quality. If novelists were gunfighters, Pullman would leave the majority of his competitors dead in the dust.

Copyright © 2004 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at

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