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Lyra's Oxford

Philip Pullman

Random House

UK Hardback

ISBN: 0 385 60699 0

56 Pages(plus inserts); £9.99

Date Reviewed: 20th December 2003

Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge © 2003



Fantasy, General Fiction


Some might be cynical and suggest that this book is a ploy for the Christmas market, especially as with its small, hardcover format, it does have a distinctly gift-book feel about it. There's also no doubt that it will keep fans of Pullman's books amused for longer than its 56 pages might warrant, due to the fold-out map, tickets and postcards that fill up the pages. It is a good book for Christmas, then, for many reasons, but it's a good book for more reasons than that.

The introduction says, "This book contains a story and several other things. The other things might be connected with the story, or they might not; they might be connected to other stories that haven't appeared yet. It's not easy to tell." The "found" element of the book -- that really this is a miscellaneous collection of things that just might be of interest -- will appeal to children grown-up or otherwise. It's exciting, and coincidental, and that's what can make Christmas magical. Still, this book is also a useful hook for Pullman to hang future books on -- like a soap opera, you always want to know what happens next, and to have all the clues to piece together the next installment. This book ends on a positive note as Lyra realizes that the city is her home and is protecting her; and "everything means something", this book tells us -- there are no accidents in Pullman's worlds -- so there are some clues here which might make this story an important link to Pullman's next books, and also add depths of meaning to his previous books.

That said, if you haven't read the other books, a lot of this wouldn't make much sense. The story is a brief tale of Lyra in Oxford, feeding the starlings and escaping death as usual, but there are references to His Dark Materials that add an enjoyable element of detective work to the reading process.

Lyra and the Birds, as the story is called, follows Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, as they rescue another daemon from the apparently menacing presence of the birds of Oxford. The reader's curiosity is quickly aroused using a variety of clues for the reader to follow, including a facsimile page from an ancient book on Oxford with clearly relevant matters, and also with seemingly irrelevant clues such as timetables and book lists.

For those who know Oxford, this book includes a quite accurate map of Oxford with Pullman's imagination imprinted onto the real place. The physical details of the place are good, which adds to the feeling that, far from being a high-flown fantasy, Pullman's writing is always rooted in reality -- which can make the events that occur more sinister.

This story raises many of the questions which Pullman's other books raise: the quest for innocence, the battle of good and evil, and the powers that rule the earth are all present in a tiny fable here. He does not answer these questions for us -- one might argue he doesn't have time to here -- but in fact Pullman doesn't like to give answers; instead he likes to give us clues to work it out for ourselves. For children and adults, this is how it should be; what we are told we might forget, but what we figure out for ourselves will stay with us, and Pullman, like all the best teachers, works this maxim to its utmost in unforgettable tales.