Letters from Abroad: The Golden Compass & The Ruby in the Smoke

I am rereading The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

Actually, the book I am reading is titled Northern Lights, the original UK title. Here in Vienna, where I am blogging from, almost all the English books at libraries and bookstores are UK editions. (Note today we have a photo of a street sign a few blocks from where this blog is being written. Bratislava is one hour away). 

So I wanted to say a little about Northern Lights/Golden Compass, specifically, to mention a lesser known book by Pullman that I always saw as closely related to his incredibly successful (and awesome) Northern Lights. It is called The Ruby in the Smoke and was published ten years previous. 

(By the way, although it’s a bit off the topic of this post, I’d love it if people who know could explain why or why not The Golden Compass/Northern Lights could be called steampunk. I don’t see it referred to as such anywhere, which made me wonder why. But I digress…)

Ruby in the SmokeNot everyone realizes that, before he wrote The Golden Compass, Pullman wrote a series of four straightforward Victorian England historical thrillers for kids featuring a spunky girl named Sally Lockhart. (The Golden Compass also features a fantastic, tough young heroine, Lyra, though she is clearly different from Sally Lockhart. By the way, The Ruby in the Smoke was his second book for children, following Count Karlstein, a book about kids in an early 1800s Swiss village in danger of being sacrificed to a Demon Huntsman who appears at midnight in the woods, if I remember correctly.)

The 1800s England part of the Northern Lights world always seemed to me to come from the earlier, non-fantasy setting that Pullman had already featured in these four Sally Lockhart adventure stories for kids. (Disclaimer: I have only read the first book, The Ruby in the Smoke, in the Sally Lockhart series.) That is to say, Pullman seems to have gone from writing historical adventure stories—with mystical elements, in The Ruby in the Smoke the mystical element is a curse that lies on a priceless ruby—to writing his otherworldly Dark Materials series, which takes the mystical elements of his earlier books, a curse, magic, or a demon huntsman, to a whole new level.

That is, instead of coming from a sci-fi direction, writing sci-fi and then choosing to explore a historical setting for a certain story, Pullman’s case is the opposite. He started as a historical adventure writer (albeit one with mysticism and surrealistic elements already in his stories) . Then in Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, he worked with the historical setting he was well-experienced writing in (1800s England) and added new fantasy-esque layers onto the setting—every human has a dämon, Dust, armoured polar bears—which he explored narratively. 

I don’t doubt that the incredible proficiency he had already developed for writing stories in an historical English setting helped him realize the extraordinarily imagined world of Northern Lights.

A fact which might be of interest to Tor.com readers: The Ruby in the Smoke was made into a BBC mystery-adventure movie starring none other than Billie Piper of Doctor Who fame.

Help me out here now, folks: First, can anyone say if Northern Lights/The Golden Compass is steampunk for kids? And have you read these lesser-known Sally Lockhart mysteries? Do you see a connection between them and his Dark Materials trilogy?


Keith McGowan is the debut author of The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children, which was named an “inspired recommendation for children” by independent bookstores nationwide. He is published by Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt & Company.

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