Completed 18 years ago, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” is a modern fantasy classic. I liked Book 1, loved Book 2, and admired Book 3. New he returns with the first book in another trilogy, set in the same Universe.
The first half of “The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage,” is a long buildup and I was enthralled and surprised that it reads like a spy thriller. Young Malcolm Polstead works at his father’s inn, the Trout, on the Thames. Since many visitors from Oxford pass through the Inn, Malcolm has access to travellers and information. He learns that a young baby, Lyra, has been given to the care of local nuns. Lyra is the child of two mysterious adults, Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter. (Readers of his “His Dark Materials” will instantly rejoice at their mention.)
Once Malcolm discovers a secret message in an acorn, and the murdered delivery person, Malcolm walks straight into a game of spies. This leads him to Hannah Relf, researching the secrets of the alethiometer and a member of a secret government agency opposing the Magisterium.
The novel first half is fueled by Magisterium’s rise to power. A creeping fascism takes root in Pullman’s England, slowly strangling the society into subservience. It’s scary. Malcolm has to decide how he will personally respond to Magisterium’s growing dominance.
Circumstances give him a prominent task in the second half of the novel. England is deluged in a 100-year flood, and Malcolm flees in the floodwaters in his boat, La Belle Sauvage. He takes with him a woman named Alice and the baby Lyra. Following close behind them is the villain Bonneville, who wants to kidnap baby Lyra. Pullman skillfully guides us on a long chase sequence to a flooded English countryside as Malcolm and Alice struggle to keep out of Bonneville’s clutches.
I preferred the spy-thriller atmosphere of the first half of the novel. That said, Pullman is a terrific writer and the entire book was a fascinating read. The return of old mysteries and favorite characters make this a rich read.
Pullman’s vision of humanity is darker now than when he wrote “His Dark Materials.” He is clearly inspired by the creeping authoritarianism rising in the Western World today, which makes this fantasy a relevant and important book.
I’m ready to see what he has planned for book 2, set to release in 2019.