What an absolute joy it was to return to the magical and terrible world (at least one of them) that Philip Pullman created in his Dark Materials Trilogy. With La Belle Sauvage, Volume One of The Book of Dust, Pullman has written a gripping and utterly bewitching prequel to his earlier works. Set 10 years before the events in The Northern Lights, it nonetheless includes characters and tropes familiar to readers, which makes starting this novel all the more joyous, exciting and comforting… only, as readers of Pullman would know, the latter feeling is always temporary.
In this book, we’re introduced to the delightful Malcolm Polstead, the eleven-year-old son of publicans who own an Oxford ale-house called The Trout. Malcolm is kind, inquisitive and clever, and thoroughly enjoys his life which includes school, helping his parents and the sisters at the local priory, and listening to the many varied and interesting conversations that visitors and regulars to The Trout engage in. It’s at this time Malcolm learns not only of the prospect of a terrible flood, but of the existence of a baby named Lyra Belacqua and finds he’s not only compelled to meet her but that when he does, all his protective instincts are aroused.
When, over a few nights, groups of visitors appear who both discuss and directly question Malcolm about certain events, the baby and other people, his curiosity and desire to render aid is piqued. That their appearance also heralds some dark changes in the familiar patterns of the everyday and sinister intruders with nefarious intentions appear, suggests to Malcolm, and others around him, that dark forces are stirring.
When Malcolm and a young, contrary assistant at the pub are called upon to show courage and tenacity in the face of both natural disaster and human politicking and resistance to injustice, they are stretched to the very limits of their imagination, strength and abilities.
I found it so hard to put this book down. Beautifully written, the opening pages of the book set a slow-burning, bucolic scene that you just know will soon be disrupted. Once more, the Magesterium and those who resist its dogma are present. Likewise, the deadly Mrs Coulter, Lord Asriel and others make and appearance. Malcolm is strongly drawn and you can’t help but love and champion his every move, all the time aware he is only a child, and will not only make mistakes, but lacking experience, will also judge poorly at times. Sinking hearts as well as leaping ones are par for the course with this book as Malcolm, the accidental hero, undertakes a dangerous and all-important journey to deliver a precious package to the only person that can keep it safe.
Encountering mystical and real enemies as well as making friends in the most surprising places, the thing about Pullman’s adventures is you can’t take anything for granted. He doesn’t steer away from placing his child protagonists in terrible situations, nor having them suffer and it just makes the world more real, more frightening and something, as a reader, you heavily invest in. That the wonderful daemons (and the scenes with the children’s ever-changing daemons and Lyra’s little itty-bitty Pantalimon are glorious) are also part and parcel of this makes the investment both more worthwhile and heart-achingly difficult, as every character you encounter, love, trust, loathe, is a two-for-one deal.
A fantastic addition to a series of books that I treasure, I cannot wait for the next instalment.