When I was growing up, I loved Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Set in a parallel universe Oxford where humans have animal familiars called daemons but magic and fantasy are still foreign, the series traces the adventures of Lyra, a young girl tasked with saving the world from the machinations of the evil Mrs. Coulter. It was the ultimate girl power story and nudged me in the direction of becoming a full-fledged Anglophile. I just loved it. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw the first publicity adds for the first book in Pullman’s new prequel trilogy, The Book of Dust, Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage, in Oxford last summer. I finally got to read it this past March, and it was well-worth the wait.
La Belle Sauvage tells the story of Malcolm, his daemon Asta, and his little boat, the titular La Belle Sauvage. Malcolm’s parents run The Trout, an inn on the banks of the Themes in Oxford (and I’ve eaten at its restaurant!), and all of Oxford comes through the doors. Malcolm notices and hears a lot but is noticed little himself, an advantage when he comes across a mysterious message about something called Dust. His adventures start when the kind spy for whom the message was intended finds him and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open. Suddenly all the world is looking for a little baby girl being hidden in the nunnery nearby. With a storm coming, threatening to flood the whole county, and the baby’s life in increasing danger, Malcolm embarks on an Odyssean journey in his boat with the baby (who will grow up to be Lyra of the original series) and the nunnery’s maid, Alice, their goal to reunite her with her father, the mysterious Lord Asriel, and survive the evil agents hunting them.
I loved this book. Loved it, loved it, loved it! It was exactly what I needed after a disappointing previous book, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more. Pullman is a master of creating whole worlds out of simplicity and structure. His language is gorgeous and evocative, and reading his stories is like jumping into the world of a painting. In fact, the way I realized that the novel’s The Trout is a real place that I have been was that his descriptions were so specific and accurate that I kept thinking, “This place sounds so familiar…” until I finally looked up the pub where we’d had dinner in Oxford and realized it was the one and the same. His masterful exploration of a truly vile character through descriptions of his hyena daemon were visceral and revolting, and the animal and man’s matching hoarse laughter stuck with me for days after finishing. And I think his world-building skills are close to Tolkien and Lewis, honestly.
Additionally, Pullman is a smart writer. Everything has a specific purpose; nothing, no description, no structural choice, is superfluous. Though well-known for his distrust of organized religion, he is well-grounded in the literature and histories of religion and mythology, much of which he uses to underpin his narrative. It’s a little like the Bible–a great flood comes and wipes out much of Oxford, setting the major events of the story in motion. It’s a little like The Odyssey–Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra experience a series of islands in the massive river, each one increasingly mystical and dreamlike, and many directly referencing stops along Odysseus’s journey. A stop at a faerie’s home mimics time on Circe’s island; a great house full of party-goers brings to mind the lotus-eaters; and the river god’s direct help reflects Athena’s support of Odysseus. All in all, La Belle Sauvage is Malcolm’s hero’s journey, setting him up for even more in the next two books.
All I wanted to do was read this book, and I got to do so on the perfect weekend. It was cold, rainy, and gross, and I spent the whole weekend wrapped up in both a blanket and the story while drinking tea. I was only disappointed at how the spy disappeared from the narrative, and I hope she returns in the next book. Technically this can be considered young adult, but it doesn’t read like a young adult novel. It just reads like a wonderful story. I can’t wait for the next one, and I may go back and binge read the original series just to tide me over. I highly recommend La Belle Sauvage, and I honestly think it is just as good an entry point into the world of Lyra as the original series is.