I reread the His Dark Materials trilogy in July in anticipation of the release last month of the first volume of the new Book of Dust trilogy by Philip Pullman which he describes as an “equel” to stand alongside ‘His Dark Materials’ as neither a prequel or a sequel. This particular volume is set before the events in ‘His Dark Materials’ in Lyra’s universe when she is a baby and features 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead, son of a local pub landlord, who ends up supplying information to a resistance group attempting to subvert the Magisterium, a powerful church authority. With the help of Alice, an older girl who works at the pub with him, and his trusty canoe named La Belle Sauvage, they seek to protect baby Lyra from the church, and specifically from the clutches of Gerard Bonneville and Lyra’s mother, Mrs Coulter.
The opening chapters have strong parallels with the beginning of ‘Northern Lights’ with Malcolm overhearing conversations between powerful adults that he doesn’t fully understand just as Lyra did at Jordan College. There are also several allusions to authoritarian regimes in this universe through the depiction of those working for and against the church agency concerned with heresy, the Consistorial Court of Discipline, and I enjoyed the espionage strands of the plot a lot, particularly the sinister League of St Alexander which encourages children to inform on adults. Minor characters from the previous trilogy are further developed such as Dr Hannah Relf who is involved in the Oakley Street resistance movement against the CCD, while other familiar faces including Farder Coram and Lyra’s parents, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter, also have significant roles to play.
Given that Pullman has never been in favour of categorising or prescribing books for specific age groups, it is unsurprising that there are some very adult themes in ‘La Belle Sauvage’ alongside a traditional, sometimes rather old-fashioned, adventure story which will appeal to younger readers too. Even though we already know from ‘His Dark Materials’ that Lyra ends up in sanctuary at Jordan College and doesn’t come to real harm as an infant, the plot is gripping and pacy with most of the action in the second half centred around the great flood in Oxford during which Malcolm and Alice both prove to be impressively resourceful.
‘La Belle Sauvage’ is a thrilling start to the Book of Dust trilogy which lays down some important groundwork ahead of what I expect will be more significant revelations in the next two volumes which Pullman has revealed will be set ten years after the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. Pullman has already finished the next book ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ which jumps forward in time to when Lyra is a 20-year-old undergraduate, so I am hopeful that it will be published at some point next year and answers some of the intriguing questions posed by the first volume about the mysteries of alethiometers, daemons and, most critically of all, Dust.