The Book of Dust, Volume 1 – La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
My, it was good to get back into Lyra’s world. That familiar, yet unfamiliar universe – where humans have an animal counterpart, their daemons; the setting is sort of contemporary, yet steampunky, with landmarks we know set alongside ones that could be real; these are Philip Pullman’s alternate shires in his new chapter in the life of Lyra, the heroine of the His Dark Materials trilogy.
This new volume, the first in a new trilogy begins, like The Northern Lights in, or at least near, Oxford, home of Jordan College. The scene is a pub in an village on the outskirts – a real pub – and much beloved of Colin Dexter’s Morse, The Trout (right). We meet young Malcolm, an only child and son of the pub landlord.
…he had friends enough, but he was happiest on his own playing with his daemon Asta in their canoe, which was called La Belle Sauvage. A witty acquaintance thought it amusing to scrawl an S over the V, and Malcolm patiently painted it out three times before losing his temper and knocking the fool into the water, at which point they declared a truce. (p4)
I did like Pullman’s joke – la belle sausage indeed!
Being only eleven years old, Malcolm’s daemon has yet to ‘settle’ into its adult form. Malcolm and Asta make a formidable pair, complementing each other perfectly. If Malcolm needs to know what’s in the dark, she’ll become an owl, and so on.
Helping in a pub is the best way to learn what’s going on in the world around him, and Malcolm discovers that the nuns in the priory next door are looking after a baby and that there are numerous parties who would wish to wrest control of this baby from the nuns. The six-month-old child is Lyra, and essentially this story tells how she came to live at Jordan College, where we meet her again in Northern LIghts at the age of twelve.
The first half of the book focuses on the politics of the situation and threats to freedom of speech. A shady organisation akin with overtones of Hitler Youth and Soviet paranoia encourages school children to inform on their teachers and each other. Malcolm declines to join the League of St Alexander, and watches from the sidelines as the headmaster is sacked followed by other teachers and more. When Malcolm returns a left-behind book to its scholar owner, Hannah Relf, he finds himself becoming part of the resistance so to speak, passing on information about all the happenings in the pub and the priory. Luckily, he’s picked the right side to align with. I won’t dwell on this part of the story except to say that it involves alethiometers, Lord Asriel – Lyra’s father and a Gyptian waterboatman, who warns him that a flood is coming…
The flood does indeed come, and none save Malcolm is prepared. The force of the water destroys parts of the priory, and Malcolm and Alice, a teenager who helps at the pub and priory save Lyra in his canoe. The initial plan is to take them to Jordan College, but the water flow prevents that, so Malcolm and Alice must go towards London where Lord Asriel is. They set off with various other factions in hot pursuit, and have many watery adventures before reaching safety. Malcolm and Alice must use every ounce of their strength and wit to keep Lyra safe. This second half of the book was doubtless inspired by the Oxfordshire floods of 2007 which were extensive (right). Pullman gets in a dig at the lack of dredging to rivers and canals in the area.
Apart from the straight-forward pursuit, Malcolm and Alice must face some strange and dangerous situations at their various moorings for food and rest that bring a more overt fantasy element into the story. For me, these sections added little to the narrative, and asked for another level of acceptance over the magic realism of daemons, anbaric power and general mysticism in this world. Also the flood section went on too long for me.
That quibble aside, Malcolm and Alice are wonderful characters and Lyra’s backstory is set up wonderfully thanks to them. As Lord Asriel says at the end of the novel to the Master of Jordan College, ‘Treasure them.’ La Belle Sauvage is a trusty steed too.
Pullman seeds many of the themes to be developed later in Northern Lights and beyond, not least the alethiometer and the concept of ‘Dust’. Enigmatically, Pullman has declared that the new trilogy is an ‘equel’, not prequel or sequel. The three parts will take before, during and after the events of His Dark Materials. The second part, to be called The Secret Commonwealth, is due in a year’s time – I can’t wait to read it! (9/10)
Source: Own copy
Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust, volume one, La Belle Sauvage (David Fickling/Penguin, 2017) hardback, 560 pages.