Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, was published in 1995. It was an immediate success with critics and readers alike and was recently voted the UK’s third most beloved work of fiction of all time. Twenty years on, Suzi Feay examines Philip Pullman’s legacy, and identifies the authors who are his heirs.
I well remember when, as a literary editor, one of my writers mentioned in passing a novel that had persuaded his 10-year-old, a reluctant reader, to persevere to the end – several times over. I’d never heard of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, but the ardent recommendation was enough to make me read it myself, together with its sequel, The Subtle Knife. I become an instant fan. In those far-off days, you may recall, there wasn’t such a category as YA (young adult) fiction. But Pullman was unquestionably a pioneer, writing books filled with sheer story-telling pleasure that no adult would be ashamed to be seen reading.
So who are his heirs? World-building, crossover appeal and series potential are some of the factors I’ve considered. Post-Pullman, romantic tosh made an unwelcome return in fantasy aimed at girls, and some of the following suffer the effects. Nor can everybody reach Pullman’s philosophical grandeur or high literary tone – I wouldn’t claim that any of these authors are channelling John Milton, for example. Nevertheless, in one way or another they have all tumbled through the gates that he pushed open all those years ago.
The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale, Faber, 978-0571295623, £6.99 pbk
I’m kicking off with a stand-alone, not part of a series; but this is one of my favourite YA novels of recent years. There’s an otherworldly flavour to this tale of a teenaged survivor of horrible abuse who finds succour in the dragon carved from her damaged rib. Her imaginary friend comes to frightening life and demands vengeance. In this profoundly imaginative and compassionate tale, Casale refuses at every turn to take the conventional option.
Seventh Son: The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney, Red Fox, 978-1849418003, £7.99 pbk
This is the new film tie-in edition of books 1 and 2 of Delaney’s long-running series about Tom Ward, the Spook’s Apprentice, ghost-busting away in a fictionalised Lancashire of indeterminate historical period. Through 13 gripping instalments the series eventually builds to grand metaphysical heights, while never short-changing the gory horror his fans love. Like Pullman, Delaney appeals as much to boys as girls.
The Door That Led To Where by Sally Gardner, Hot Key, 978-1471401084, £10.99 hbk
Gardner is one of the most brilliant – and brilliantly strange – writers on the YA circuit at present. Her latest seems to be a stand-alone, but a deliciously open ending hints at more to come. Yes please! A teenage boy blunders through a door that opens on to the year 1830, where people are waiting for him. Quite unexpectedly, the world of top hats and horse-drawn carriages proves a viable alternative to contemporary London for AJ and his gang-menaced friends. But how can they stay there without changing the future? Gardner’s tale is cleverly constructed in its time-shifting twistiness.
Half Bad by Sally Green, Penguin, 978-0141350868, £7.99 pbk
There was no avoiding Sally Green’s debut last year. The ex-accountant’s tale of a young lad of mixed magical heritage who is hunted down by the white-witch dominated Establishment for fear that he’ll take after his black-witch father, got her a million-pound deal and huge publicity campaign. And it turned out to be a taut, boy-friendly, exciting tale told with flair; albeit strangely incomplete, like a third of one novel rather than the first in a trilogy. The follow up, Half Wild, is out this month.
Black Arts by Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil, David Fickling Books, 978-1849921329, £6.99pbk
I’m not sure what happened to the projected Books of Pandemonium, of which this was supposed to be the first, but it ticked all the boxes for me: Tudor London, Dr John Dee, demonology, rapiers, ruffs, pentagrams and skulduggery galore. A young thief picks a pocket he didn’t oughta down at the Globe Theatre and attracts a whole heap of supernatural trouble. There’s a strong hint that the nipper’s sidekick is none other than playwright Christopher Marlowe. Great stuff.
The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Scholastic, 978-1407147635, £6.99 pbk
The tiny kingdom of Lormere is mysterious and compelling, with its imperious queen and its court life of hunting and pleasure-seeking. But heroine Twylla is the queen’s executioner, her very touch poisonous. It takes a dashing new bodyguard for the girl to realise that her existence has been circled about with lies. Salisbury creates an eerie, fairy-tale world that seems way too rich for a single novel. A return would be welcome.
The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Indigo, 978-1780621982, £10.99 hbk
On publication I described this as Cloud Atlas for teens with its interlocking structure: four stories, linked by the image of the spiral (staircases, snails and universes), which can be read in any order. They are presented, however, chronologically, from prehistory to the distant future. Sedgwick never writes down to a young audience; his work is demanding, rich and complex.
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, Bloomsbury, 978-1408836453, £7.99 pbk
Samantha Shannon started writing the first volume in this series while still at Oxford. She admits, ruefully, that she’ll be cracking on for 30 when it wraps up with book seven. Our heroine Paige Mahoney, fresh from a thieves’ den in Seven Dials, London finds herself in a prison camp in Oxford, watched over by the enigmatic Warden, a jailor who becomes her dangerous ally. There’s a hint of The Hunger Games here, but Shannon’s brilliant use of thieves’ cant and her elaborate world-building are truly impressive.
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, Corgi, 978-0552562799, £7.99 pbk
An author fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with Pullman in terms of literary brilliance and cosmic scale – although Stroud is much funnier. His wayward demon Bartimaeus travels through time and space showering wit and cynicism over the hopeless humans he encounters, in this and various sequels. They are masterpieces.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Hodder, 978-1444722659, £7.99
Reviewing the first in Taylor’s epic trilogy, I opined that it was ‘not the Pullmanesque masterpiece some have claimed’. So why is it on this list? The intervening years have seen so many second-rate fantasy trilogies pass my desk that I can unhesitatingly say that hers is more inventive and skilful than most. Taylor’s hipster tale of warring angels and awe-inspiring Chimaera has great verve and style, together with moments of unnerving creepiness.
Suzi Feay was literary editor of the Independent on Sunday and now reviews YA fiction for the Financial Times.