Philip Pullman’s latest The Book of Dust trilogy come after a long period, 17 years after the original His Dark Materials epic story was released, along with all the controversies and praise that it brought with it. And it’s not surprising really – there’s layers of complex ideas about theology, science, magic and just great story-telling which makes it so much more than a children’s story. Having said, that, when Pullman announced this latest prequel-slash-sequel trilogy, starting with La Belle Sauvage, I knew I’d have to re-read the first books before I could get started on this one because I wanted to get a sense of context to follow on from.
I’m glad I did re-read it all – there’s a lot of things I had forgotten about (is it just me, or are there just some books out there which are different with every reading? Sign of a good book, I say). There’s also a lot of technological, science-y and theological things which I’m sure went over my head when I read it as a 13-year-old, and which made a lot more sense to me now after reading HDM. It’s fascinating to see how many strands which make up the whole story; the idea of dark matter and Dust, of love, of the concept of dæmons and soul as well as the more biblical side to it all (whether literal or metaphorical) which entwine to stand together behind the vibrant character of Lyra Belacqua and her dæmon.
So one of the first things I would say is if you don’t remember the HDM trilogy, I’d recommend a read – you could read La Belle Sauvage to start off with (as it is a prequel, technically) but things make a lot more sense when reading the His Dark Materials trilogy first. The story of La Belle Sauvage follows a young protagonist a lot like the first trilogy, and set in ‘Lyra’s Oxford’ – plucky young Malcolm and his dæmon Asta, caught up in espionage, secrets and the oppression of the authoritarian Church and its oppressive rules. For the first time, we see the mechanisms behind the events leading to Lyra’s adventures, as well as creating an interesting back story to a few familiar characters.
Malcolm is a young, intelligent, curious boy who helps his parents at their tavern, has adventures on his boats, is friends with the local nuns and scholars. Things begin to change when he hears about the nuns looking after a baby named Lyra Belacqua, and when he sees a strange man drop a message on the ground, only to pick it up and get mixed up with a whirlwind of secrets and shady characters.
I won’t give too much away, but I will say that although the start of the story drags on a little, it is still a good read. I can see that the author didn’t want to make it too similar to Lyra’s adventures in HDM, and that details are need to establish a different story, but it felt a little stale at times . Malcolm and his life at school, working in the tavern with his parents and sailing his little boat seems a little too ‘Boys’ Own’ style at times, and there were a few parts which dragged a little.
Contrastly, just as the first half drags, there is a flood introduced to the story which requires Malcolm and his boat (sounds biblical at all?), the second half is almost chaotic and slightly confusing at times. Malcolm discovers a lot of new, fantastic things and worlds which almost feel hallucinogenic and pretty surreal, with several characters which feel like they came out of fairy tales – but in the context of the larger story, it is a hint at the idea of alternative worlds and the idea of magic.
What makes Pullman’s stories work are that they are cleverly written, and the characters are interesting. There’s no annoying obvious ‘mysteries’ (which we all guess pages before) and there’s enough of the fantasy to keep us gripped to the pages. Reading La Belle Sauvage felt like a nice throwback to my younger years, and it was interesting to be back in Lyra’s Oxford, with new characters and more intrigue. It’s certainly readable for adults, and this start to the new trilogy is certainly noticeably darker and violent, to emphasis how terrifying this world can be. Malcolm is pretty likeable in the story, although I will admit that I am a little worried that Pullman is tempted to re-write a couple of things to make them fit conveniently into HDM. Some characters such as Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter, both strong characters feel a little less charismatic however – however i have heard one argument that this could be because we are seeing them from Malcolm’s perspective.
Despite the slightly messy second half of the story (which was interesting despite it being a little crazy) I am looking forward to the next installment of this trilogy though. I love books which do world-building well, and especially it will be interesting because it seems that Lyra herself will be continuing her adventures as an adult – and it will certainly be interesting to see if she crosses over to our world ever again!