The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman

NOTE: NO SPOILERS

Finally, after seventeen long years (give or take a couple of short stories), arrives the long-awaited Book of Dust, the prequel to Pullman’s much-loved and admired His Dark Materials trilogy.

Even the book’s title is loaded with meaning. La Belle Sauvage, or The Indian Princess, was a play by James Nelson Barker first produced in 1808. One could also translate it as The Wild Princess, a description which can certainly be said to apply to Lyra herself in the books of the His Dark Materials trilogy.

The hero of this book is young Malcolm Polstead (again, a name we return to in the years to come). We meet him here as an 11 year old boy: bright, inquisitive, good with his hands and stocky. He lives with his parents in the Trout Inn at Godstow. Very soon, his world is turned upside down by the arrival of the baby girl at the priory juat over the river. The changes throw him into a world of espionage and intrigue and push this young boy to extraordinary limits, and beyond. What is established here is just how closely he is tied to the fate of Lyra Belacqua.

What is remarkable is that the world that Pullman established in HDM is still as well-formed and fully realised as the earlier books. Indeed, quite a lot of background colour and tone is added. We know more about the geography and politics of this parallel world, and we see some familiar characters in situations that explain their future actions more fully. It’s this thing that is the most impressive for me: the tying of this first book to what comes after, without lessening the immediate sense of drama of the tenderness of the growing relationship between Malcolm and Alice (who has a most interesting surname, but no spoilers).

There is a dreamlike quality to a large part of the book’s middle section, and a slightly more mystical feel than elsewhere, but it works, and fits with the world. If there’s one slight criticism, it’s that the middle section could have been compressed a little, but it’s not a major gripe; I was still gripped.

The ending is not, like Northern Lights, a cliffhanger, but it places us in a position of knowing how the baby Lyra got to be where we met her all those years ago, and sets the scene beautifully for the next volume. And it does make me want to know a lot more about Malcolm, and what he does next. I’m hooked all over again.