Once Upon a Time in the North, by Philip Pullman

Cowboy yarn makes an irresistible prequel to Pullman's trilogy

Christina Hardyment
Tuesday 08 April 2008 00:00 BST

Tantalisingly short, irresistibly snappy and full of dangerous derring-do, Once Upon a Time in the North takes us 35 years or so back from the events in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy to provide some welcome back-story about the shrewd, resourceful aeronaut Lee Scoresby as a young man.

Lyra meets the balloonist in Northern Lights – a "tall lean man with a thin black moustache and narrow blue eyes and a perpetual expression of distant and sardonic amusement". When this story opens, Lee is 24, ready for adventure and "happy to go wherever the winds took him" after winning a balloon in a Texan poker game. Bringing it down is still a matter of trial and error, as he has only the first half of a manual on aerial navigation. A spectacular crash-landing in the Arctic port of Novy Odense drops him straight into the middle of a confrontation between a bullying mining company and a Dutch sea-captain.

Despite the lack of horses and the aggressive foreground presence of a very familiar armoured bear, this is essentially a cowboy yarn: Zane Grey on ice, with daemons as loyal sidekicks. It has at its core the necessary antagonism between good and evil, honour and corruption. Lee's name is surely a homage to Lee Marvin, while his laconic alliance with Iorek Byrnison (here younger and not at all drink-besotted) has echoes of the friendship between McQueen and Brynner in The Magnificent Seven.

Lee recognises Morton, the gunfighter hired by the local Mr Big, as the ruthless killer of a Texan farmer, three marshalls and sundry others. He abandons hopes of seducing Mr Big's charming but vapid daughter and heads to the aid of the underdog: the Dutch captain whose cargo of rock samples the mining company covets. The vividly choreographed climax is a warehouse gunfight between Lee and his gutsy hare daemon Hester, and the black-hearted Morton, whose rattlesnake daemon aptly reveals his character.

It ends well: exit a bear and a cowboy in a balloon, trailed by a gunboat; cue a teasing reference to Lyra as an undergraduate. It also leaves plenty of room for more instalments. Where do Lee and Iorek go next? Where did they meet Serafina Pekkala, clan queen of the witches? I, for one, welcome new chapters, especially should they come, as this does, elegantly decorated with John Lawrence's woodcuts and matched in format to Lyra's Oxford.

David Fickling. Order for £9.99 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897

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