Once Upon a Time in the North, 2008
Written by Philip Pullman
112 pages (hardcover)
This is going to be short and sweet, just like the book. (It won't cost you as much, though.)
If you're not a fan of the His Dark Materials series or if you haven't read them, then this isn't the book that will change your mind nor is it the place to start reading. If you haven't read them, start with The Golden Compass. If you've read them and didn't like them, well, this isn't the book for you.
If you have read the books and enjoyed them, then Once Upon a Time in the North is a nice little novella that expands a bit on the work in the novels. It takes place a few decades before the events of Compass, specifically to Lee Scoresby's early days as an aeronaut. He lands in Novy Odense, gets involved in the local political scene, meets Iorek Byrinson, gets in a couple of adventures, and sets off with his new bear-friend in tow. That's about it.
The pleasures of the book (besides getting to learn about how Iorek and Lee first met) are mostly to be found in Pullman's characterization of Lee as a young man: he's a sarcastic young adventurer on the make who's definitely interested in the ladies as much as you'd think a brash young pilot would be. Iorek has a smaller role, but a pivotal one, and an action sequence that takes up maybe a quarter of the book's total length gives us some great "look at that badass bear" moments.
Is it worth the cost? Eh. North comes with a board game (which I didn't play) and a couple of added bits that give hints about Lyra Silvertongue's future, but Amazon lists the price as ten bucks and change, which is a bit steep for a novella that most of us could finish in an hour or so. As ancillary products that go along with bestselling book series go, it's not bad, but the story seems a little lightweight. Hardcore fans will like this, especially fans of Lee Scoresby, but everyone else can skip it.
I will say, though, that the title just makes me wish Ennio Morricone had written the score for the film version of The Golden Compass.
(Goes off to listen to Morricone's score for Once Upon a Time in the West.)