The His Dark Materials (HDM) trilogy by Philip Pullman is one of my favourite series of all time, so I was quite nervous about reading his latest novel set in the same world introduced in those books, the first of which, Northern Lights (also known by its US title The Golden Compass) was published 22 years ago.
The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage tells of events that occur 10 years before what happens in Northern Lights, serving as an introduction to what we already know. Indeed, part of my worry was whether this backstory was worth knowing. If it’s so significant, then why hadn’t not knowing made a difference to how much I enjoyed HDM?
What I found was a tale that completely and utterly absorbed me; that pulled me into that world much more easily than Northern Lights did. I think this is mainly to do with its protagonist, 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead (those who have read Lyra’s Oxford, in which Lyra is a 15-year-old student at St Sophia’s School, may remember him making a brief appearance in that companion book to HDM).
Where 11-year-old Lyra is intelligent, courageous and resourceful, she can also be prickly, obnoxious and deceitful; whereas Malcolm has all of Lyra’s virtues while also being wholly likeable. He is curious, honest, reliable, and, best of all, kind; a seemingly, at first glance, uncomplicated soul, although as the story progresses, he reveals an impressively complex personality, including a gift for philosophical rumination.
Malcolm also experiences a mysterious physical symptom that remains unexplained at the end of the novel.
Malcolm lives at an inn called the Trout, located three miles up the River Thames from the centre of Oxford, and opposite a priory. Malcolm’s father is the innkeeper and Malcolm helps out, washing up and serving customers. His favourite things to do in his free time are playing with his daemon, Asta, in their canoe, La Belle Sauvage, and visiting the nuns at the priory.
The book’s subtitle indicates that this canoe will play a large part in the story that Pullman will tell and so it does, through Malcolm, whom, in a way, we have to thank for the HDM trilogy.
In the first half of La Belle Sauvage (LBS), Malcolm learns that a baby called Lyra has been placed in the care of the nuns, his friends. When Malcolm meets Lyra, he is immediately her devoted slave. In the novel’s second half, Malcolm and Alice (a maid quite unlike that other Alice from Oxford), who works at both the Trout and the priory, are forced to flee with Lyra, as the country is besieged by floods and an enemy intent on seizing the child closes in.
While it is Gerard Bonneville – a terrifying mad scientist and sexual predator with a maimed hyena daemon – whom Malcolm and Alice are most urgently running from, it is ultimately the Magis-terium, that all-powerful institution, that is determined to thwart the prophecy of witches that states that Lyra is the one who will “bring about the end of destiny”.
No spoilers, but we, of course, know that Lyra escapes. Still, thanks to the storytelling skills of Pullman, the sense of urgency and suspense is as acute as if we are unfamiliar with Lyra’s fate. Once again, it is Malcolm that makes us care about what happens. Knowing Lyra will be OK is one thing, but she is not the girl we grew to care about in HDM. This is Malcolm’s story, really, and so we are on the edge of our seats because we are anxious about him. As we don’t know much about his future self, how he fares as Lyra’s champion compels us to pay close attention. It’s also somewhat heartbreaking when we compare Malcolm and Lyra in LBS to their brief interaction in Lyra’s Oxford.
I am curious about how they get from A (LBS) to B (Lyra’s Oxford), and it makes me impatient for the next volume of The Book Of Dust, The Secret Commonwealth. It will be set, so I hear, 10 years after the events in Northern Lights. I hope we get more of Malcolm in it.
I am also curious about another character, Hannah Relf, who occupies just a few inches of page in Northern Lights and The Amber Spyglass but is given a significant role in LBS.
The way that Pullman has taken two minor characters and developed them in such interesting and meaningful ways delights me even more than encountering earlier (chronologically-speaking) versions of characters, like Farder Coram, Marisa Coulter, and Lord Asriel, who have central roles in HDM. In fact, the only thing that jarred with me in this novel is the way Lord Asriel relates to Baby Lyra. It didn’t quite gel with the way he is in HDM, but then again, who knows the effect time has on him. Also, he may just be better with babies than with tweens.
As for Pullman’s commentary on religion and the Church, although I’ve always understood the references, I’ve also always been able to avoid letting them affect my enjoyment of these stories. Like HDM, LBS is first and foremost a children’s adventure and being as ignorant as most kids will be of the novel’s subtext is a plus point.
The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: David Fickling Books, high fantasy