For those who fell under the spell of Philip Pullman’s masterful “His Dark Materials” trilogy, it was an experience as rich and heady as a gulp of the narrative’s well-aged Tokay wine.
The plot takes off at a ferocious pace, with a spunky but barely educated orphan, Lyra, matching wits with brilliant scientist and explorer Lord Asriel at Jordan College in Oxford, where she is being raised by a cohort of elderly male scholars.
The backdrop of the story is a battle between an ominous papal-like Magisterium that seeks to control the populace through spies and thought police, and the independent thinkers investigating a rare substance called Dust.
Pullman returns to this world with “The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage,” the first of a prequel trilogy to his earlier series.
The story has a long, slow buildup as we meet 11-year-old Malcolm, who works at his parents’ pub upriver from Oxford; teenage Alice, their surly kitchen help; and the nuns at a nearby priory who are sheltering a mysterious infant.
But ominous clouds are gathering. Various parties want to get their hands on the infant Lyra, who is the subject of a powerful prophecy. The Magisterium is increasing its reach with a new group of student informants, the League of Alexander, who take control at Malcolm’s school.
Malcolm witnesses an arrest by agents of the Magisterium and is drawn into a world of scholars and spies, all bent on discovering the secret of the mysterious Dust.
When a 500-year storm unleashes the Thames, he has to make a quick decision to snatch Lyra and escape with Alice in his canoe from a violent man and his terrifying daemon, an injured hyena.
There’s a relentlessness to the story once Malcolm and Alice cast off into the flood, but there are also odd and oddly rich eddies and detours, where they visit a fairy feast, encounter ancient river gods and battle their pursuers. The urgency of the plot is also undercut by our knowledge that Lyra survives to take a central role in later stories.
Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy left unanswered one of its central questions: the nature of Dust.
Early in this book, two characters hint at Pullman’s aim here when they discuss a scholar, Rusakov, who is investigating the nature of consciousness, or “why something entirely material, such as a human body … should be able to generate this impalpable, invisible thing, awareness.”
The first installment of “The Book of Dust” drops hints, but offers few answers.
Fans of Pullman’s earlier series will not be able to resist the pull of this new novel that returns readers to his alternate Europe with its swirl of fantasy, steampunk and danger intertwined.
But those hoping for a satisfying conclusion to the earlier trilogy will have to be content with this appetizer and hope that the next two installments build to a full banquet.