Once Upon a Time in the North, by Philip Pullman

I’ve mentioned before how much I love Philip Pullman and his trilogy His Dark Materials, so it comes as no surprise that I went into reading Once Upon a Time in the North knowing that I would love it. A few years ago, Pullman published a little red volume called Lyra’s Oxford, a companion to the trilogy that told a short story about Lyra set a few years after the events of the last book took place. Once Upon a Time in the North is a similar companion book, a little blue volume that tells a sort of prequel to the famous trilogy, focusing upon Lee Scoresby (the aeronaut from the country of Texas – Mr. Pullman knows how to flatter us Texans!) and how he came to befriend the great armored bear, Iorek Byrnison. The story is essentially an adventure tale about a corrupt politician, a greedy oilman, a seedy bar, a few hired killers, two pretty but very different ladies, and the cowboy who gets embroiled in it all. It has a distinctive Old West flavor (despite being set in the far, frigid North) and is written with the considerable level of skill I’ve come to expect from Pullman. This book is a treat for fans of His Dark Materials, who finally get to see how two of the most pivotal characters met each other. It’s also heartwrenching at one point, when Pullman makes reference to an event that will happen much, much later.

The story is only about a hundred pages, so naturally it left me wanting more. Still, it was a good way to tide me over until The Book of Dust is published (hopefully sometime before I die), and I’ve read there will be a third little green volume that tells Will’s story.

While I love audiobooks, listening to these books on CD would be unconscionable. Once Upon a Time in the North is a beautifully-made book, and it’s chock full of “extras” that require hands-on reading. Aside from the short story, the reader is also treated to two letters from Lyra concerning her doctoral dissertation, snippets from a manual on aeronautics, beautiful woodcuts by John Lawrence, and an honest-to-goodness board game in a pocket at the back, which I am going to coerce someone to play with me very soon. It has thick, high-quality paper and is all wrapped up in a beautiful cloth cover. It’s a perfect complement to Lyra’s Oxford, which contains similar extras, including woodcuts by Lawrence and a postcard from Mary Malone. Instead of a board game, the story about Lyra features a beautiful fold-out map of the alternate universe Oxford in which Lyra lives (pictured to the right). I have always loved the tactile feel of a book, but these volumes take my love to another level.

I’m interested to see how libraries deal with books such as these. At the library where I work, the copy of Lyra’s Oxford includes the fold-out map, but the copy of Once Upon a Time in the North does not include the board game. My local library, on the other hand, retains the board game as well as the map for patrons. I haven’t been able to get my hands on the library copy, so I don’t know if all the pieces in the game are still there or if the map has been torn.

I’ve always loved the extras that books sometimes have. When I was very into epic fantasy as a teenager, I’d pick the book with the map on the endpages over the book without the map every time. I especially loved it when the author’s world was so intricate and detailed, it merited a glossary at the back. Is there a particular book you’ve read where the extras really enhanced your enjoyment? How does your library handle books with easily torn components or parts that are easily stolen/lost?

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  1. says

    I loved the book “Griffin and Sabine,” which is a series of letters. It’s been so long since I’ve read it and need to reread it, but the reason I loved it was because the letters are extras in the sense they’re not typed on the page. Rather, you have to open each envelope and open the letter. Very cool book. I got it from the library and all of the pieces were still there, despite what could be challenging to keep together. I suspect that patrons who love these sorts of books are very conscious of keeping the pieces as one so others, too, can enjoy. I might have to find this book now…. :)

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