This is a bit of fun, a frippery, a pallet cleanser. It’s set in the same universe as “His Dark Materials”, and tells the story of Lee Scoresby’s first meeting with Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear.
I will confess: I don’t think this book was written for me. It is in the style of a classic Western – the title references the film “Once Upon a Time in the West”, which I have never seen and which doesn’t particularly appeal to me. It features a lengthy shoot-out, which is just not my genre.
The political commentary feels very heavy-handed to me, and I think it worth mentioning because I had exactly the same complaint about “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ”, which I read a few years ago. Philip Pullman is very clever, capable of great depth and nuance, and this felt too easy, too obvious. There is an argument that “Once Upon a Time…” is redeemed by the inclusion of a newspaper article which (according to wikipedia!) offers ‘a different spin on the events”; I read it as entirely spin, published by a press controlled by the corrupt government, and so amplifying rather than undermining the story which had already been told. Perhaps my own political bias is showing…
For all that, there was enough to keep my interest. Scoresby is not ‘my kind’ of character, but he is well written, and his particular sense of morality is interesting to examine, possibly partly because he is an archetype from a genre which I tend not to read. I wouldn’t have read this if it wasn’t part of a universe which already interests me, but it is, and it is very short, and I’m willing to invest that time.
And above all this – the whole idea of daemons and their relationship with their humans fascinates me, and will carry me through quite a lot of shooting. I had forgotten that daemons can disagree with their people, can know and perceive things that their people don’t. They are not only ‘souls’, they are conscience and intuition, impulse and nurture, representatives of the ‘shadow self’. Hester is Lee and is not Lee, and that in itself is intriguing.