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Pullman spins yet another fantasy yarn straight from a western; books ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH - PHILIP PULLMAN (DAVID FICKLING BOOKS; pounds 9.99).

Byline: by Lorne Jackson

BOOKS are bags of fun, right? Actually, on further consideration, perhaps they aren't exciting enough.

Most of the time the genteel reader reclines languorously on a sofa, indolently flipping pages, quietly scanning words.

Which means there's not much difference between a bloke in a coma and your average bookish bod.

But what if novels included board games between their dust covers? Zowee!

Imagine Gone With The Wind as a version of Snakes And Ladders.

Our tempestuous heroin, Scarlett, clambers up a ladder... and gets to snog Rhett Butler. Then tumbles down a snake as he tells her that he doesn't "give a damn".

It may sound far-fetched. But that's exactly what best-selling children's fantasy author, Philip Pullman, has provided along with his latest novel, Once Upon A Time In The North.

Bored of the book? Then board the board-game.

Peril Of The Pole, which is the name of the game, offers a nice distraction, and provides an adorable little extra.

But in truth, there's really little chance of the average reader finding Pullman's story dull in the first place.

Because when it comes to spinning a yarn, he's one of the best in the business.

However, before rushing out to buy the volume, I should warn you that as good as it is, this book shouldn't be purchased by everyone.

For one thing, it takes place inside the universe Pullman created for his trilogy, His Dark Materials.

Anyone who hasn't read Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass will probably be slightly confused by the action.

Difficult questions will need to be answered.

Who are these talking polar bears, for instance, and why are they so skilled at constructing armour?

The two protagonists in Pullman's latest adventure also first appeared in his classic trilogy.

They are Lee Scoresby, a brave young Texan balloonist, and one of those mighty Polar Bears, Lorek Byrnison.

Lee has just come down to earth on the harbour of an Arctic town in the North. He doesn't realise he's about to be sucked into a political brawl.

Soon he is targeted by warring factions who want to take over the town, which is rich in oil.

Arctic

Although the story is set in the Arctic, what Pullman has actually written is an old fashioned Western yarn.

The title, of course, provides a major clue, being a variation on one of Sergio Leone's finest Spaghetti Westerns, Once Upon A Time In The West. However, the tale actually has more in common with A Fistful Of Dollars, with its plot of a stranger turning up in a town at war with itself, then thriving on the ensuing anarchy.

As usual, Pullman writes with vigour and intelligence, and never condescends to his readership.

Which means this book will be a joy for both youngsters and adults alike.

However, it's a slight tale - more of a short story, really - and takes only a few brief hours to consume.

In that respect it's similar to the author's last 'mini-book', Lyra's Oxford, which also took characters from His Dark Materials, then spun a little tale for them.

The author is clearly treading water, providing fans with a treat before completing his next magnum opus, The Book Of Dust, which will also feature the protagonists from His Dark Materials.

However, a little nibble of Pullman is more entertaining and mindexpanding than gorging on the full courses provided by most modern authors.

Plus this book has exquisite illustrations, woodcuts created by master engraver, John Lawrence.

And let's not forget that natty board game.

This is a book which Pullman devotees will adore.

But what about readers who haven't read his magical masterpieces?

I'd advise them to start doing their homework - you're missing out on a treat.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Apr 6, 2008
Words:628
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