Philip Pullman, Lyra's Oxford (Knopf, 2003)
Philip Pullman, Lyra's Oxford: The Audiobook [narrated by the author] (Knopf, 2003)

'Lyra's knowledge had great gaps in it, like a map of the world largely eaten by mice....' -- The Golden Compass

Now where was I? Ahhh, going through the afternoon post before anyone else gets to it.

What's this? A very small book from Philip Pullman called Lyra's Oxford? Hmmm... Let's see what the promo material has to say about it: 'Attention all serious book collectors and fans of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. This undoubtedly beautiful package, clothbound in a classy red and adorned by numerous illustrations by master engraver and illustrator John Lawrence, is sure to be a must-purchase.' O.K., now what about the rest of us who haven't read the series yet? Will this chapbook of about fifty pages -- which is also released as an audiobook that I'll also discuss here -- appeal to readers in general? Or will it be something that only those who are deeply in love with the universe of the His Dark Materials series appreciate?

I haven't yet read the series, and I may not. Opinions from the staff about it are bitterly divided, with Maria Nutick -- who reviewed it -- saying: 'My love affair with Philip Pullman began when I found The Golden Compass and fell for his beautifully descriptive writing and the fantastically creative world of Lyra Silvertongue. Our relationship began to suffer when he released The Subtle Knife, bringing together Lyra's amazing universe and our much more familiar world. I tried to hang on, but my loyalty was sorely tested. And then, when he cruelly betrayed me with the darkness and despair of The Amber Spyglass, I was forced to turn away and search for a new love... ' If I do read it, I'll tell you!

(It won't be soon. Me reading pile is so deep now that the cats who share our garret flat are avoiding going near it for fear of getting buried under it!)

First, let's deal with the packaging, an important consideration in evaluating these artifacts. And I do mean artifacts, as that is how Pullman intends us to think of them. This exquisitely compact package is a clothbound chapbook in an elegant red binding, and the book itself is adorned by numerous illustrations by master engraver and illustrator John Lawrence. A pint-sized pocket volume, Lyra's Oxford packages together a short story set in the same universe as the His Dark Materials trilogy and a fold-out map of the not-this-Oxford which Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon inhabit. Pullman, in his introduction, suggests that the peripheral items within 'might be connected with the story, or they might not; they might be connected to stories that haven't appeared yet. It's difficult to tell.' This is why I say they're artifacts. Pullman's created for us a small and somewhat odd puzzle -- sort of like the packages that one might assemble from rummaging through an old chest.

The coolest thing here is the map of Oxford 'by train, river and zeppelin' (as John Lawrence, the illustrator, notes in his legend). The map in the book is bound in place, but the audiobook has a removable map which is, alas, much smaller and less colourful than the one in the book. Note to Knopf: you're only tempting folks to tear books apart by doing this; I can't be the only one who wants to frame this very Victorian looking map! In addition, there's a short brochure for a cruise to The Levant aboard the SS Zenobia and a postcard from the inventor of the amber spyglass, Mary Malone -- not as separate artifacts, but rather simply as pages in the volume. I have the feeling that this project was not well thought out, as all the artifacts here (brochure, map, pages from an old Oxford guide, and postcard) would have been better served by being true pieces. Someone got cheap, and this idea suffers for them doing so.

The story, 'Lyra and the Birds', begins when Lyra and Pantalaimon spot a witch's daemon named Ragi being pursued over the rooftops of Oxford by a frenzied pack of birds. The daemon heads straight for Lyra and is given shelter. The creature was given Lyra's name as somebody who might help it. It's seeking one Sebastian Makepeace -- an alchemist living in a part of Oxford known as Jericho. Together, Lyra and Pan try to guide the daemon to the home of this man, but it is a journey fraught with more danger than they had at first anticipated. The tale's charming -- a bittersweet trifle to be read on a cold winter's night while safely ensconced in one's domicile.

So am I suggesting that it's worth purchasing? Not at all -- at least not the book, as we'd just be encouraging such shoddy workmanship in the future. But the audiobook's another matter altogether! I've heard more audiobooks than I care to 'member, most of them truly awful or just plain badly done, but this is a true joy to listen to. Pullman serves as narrator with a full theatre company. Lyra is played by Joanna Wyatt, who also voiced her in the previous audio versions of the His Dark Materials books. Pullman himself has a lovely voice that truly makes me believe in this Oxford, and the rest of the cast is equally impressive. From the very first words spoken by Pullman ('Oxford, where the real and the unreal jostle in the streets; where North Parade is in the south, and South Parade in the North, where Paradise is lost under a pumping station...') to the telling of the tale itself, it's a perfect experience. I certainly will be giving the audiobook as gifts to folks this holiday season, as it's worth sharing. And if they ever properly do up the hardcover version, I will give that, too, as gifts. But not as it is now.

It's getting late, so let's repair to the kitchen for some mulled cider and perhaps a slab of freshly baked bread with lekvar. Have you ever heard the tale of how the Neverending Session once played through every tune in John Playford's Tunebook, during a particularly bitter winter storm when no one could enter or leave this building? I thought not. This is how it happened...

[Jack Merry]