Book Review: “The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage”, by Phillip Pullman

Let me preface this review by stating that I’ve been waiting for this book–any book in the His Dark Materials series, really–for almost two decades. Rumors of The Book Of Dust have been swirling out there in Publishingland for at least a decade, if not longer. The fans of His Dark Material I know wondered whether we would ever see it, and what it would be like. Pullman himself once described it as a “very big book”, which I always took to mean that it would take forever to write and that we may never get to enjoy the finished product.

Behold! The finished product has arrived!

And what an arrival it is. La Belle Sauvage is the first book in this new series, entitled The Book of Dust. I have not found a book recently that I dropped into immediately and felt comfortable being led by the nose by the author through the land of his invention, Lyra’s Oxford. And make no mistake, we are indeed led by the nose, the author’s lyric prose the golden ring to which the lead is hitched. Pullman has brought us right back to where we started, an alternative England that is by turns a steampunk world and the Holy Roman Empire. It is a world where the church exhibits tremendous authority and power over state affairs, and where the world is lit by a combination of electric light (called “anbaric”) and good old fashion fossil fuel (naphtha). It is the world of Gyptians and their strange ways and uncanny foresight of the natural world, and of the bravery of boys called upon to be heroes too young.

It is the world of unspeakably evil characters that make you desperately fear for the heroes safety.

The heroes in question are Malcolm Polstead, a boy who works in his parents’ tavern, helping as part of the wait staff and as busboy when not in school or doing homework; and Alice, the eighteen year old girl who washes dishes in the tavern. Despite their grievances toward each other, they find a away to put aside their quarrels when they rescue the infant Lyra from a flooded nunnery. The flood that comes to Oxford is a flood to end all floods, Pullman’s version of the Biblical flood, and it washes them in Malcolm’s canoe, the titular La Belle Sauvage, south toward London in search of Lord Asriel, the girl’s father. They are pursued by a madman whose calm demeanor is betrayed by the hideously maimed hyena that is his daemon, the physical embodiment each human’s soul.

If everything I’ve just said is gibberish to you, then you have not had the enjoyment of the original His Dark Materials series. Pullman spend almost no time grounding you in the world. You are plunged once more into Lyra’s world, and like the rest of Oxford when the great flood comes, it’s either sink of swim. In his trip down the River Thames with our two heroes and their infant ward, we encounter all manner of beings, fearful and fantastic, revealing in part the direction Pullman appears to be taking this new series. The second book, tentatively due out next year, is entitled The Secret Commonwealth, a reference to a book of the same name written four hundred years earlier, and detailing the world of fairies in England. The groundwork for a world of fairies is laid in this first book.

Is The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage as good as the original trilogy? If pressed, I’d probably say no, not quite, but that is my own prejudices talking. The Golden Compass, known as The Northern Lights in the U.K., is one of my favorite books, and my favorite of the series. I could argue that the second and third books aren’t as good as the first, and I would make that argument for La Belle Sauvage as well. But don’t let my silly nostalgia dissway you from reading this one. It is a fine, fine book, and one that I will likely go to again, something I reserve for a very few select titles. The Book of Dust is a marvelous book, and my autumn was made richer by it.

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