A while ago I was introduced to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and I was transported to a fantasy world where people’s souls are represented by animalistic “daemons” that travel with their people throughout their entire lives. The His Dark Materials series was one of the greatest book series that I have ever read and is often on my must-read list that I give to other people. Pullman eventually came out with three shorter supplements to the series, all in anticipation for a series he claimed to be working on: The Book of Dust. Here is the listing of the works in this series so far:
His Dark Materials:
Book 1: The Golden Compass (The Northern Lights in the UK)
Book 2: The Subtle Knife
Book 3: The Amber Spyglass
Also included within the series:
Book 4: Lyra’s Oxford – a small novella set after the His Dark Materials series
Book 5: Once Upon a Time in the North – Another novella set before His Dark Materials, it gives us the first meeting of Iorek Byrnison and Lee Scoresby.
Book 6: The Collectors – A most unusual addition in that it is entirely presented as an audiobook (although later released in print form) and seems to be about one of the main characters from an alternative reality.
I had listened to all of the previous releases as audiobooks in preparation for The Book of Dust. These have all been created as audiodramas, with a full cast and narrated by the author (except The Collectors). And they are all exquisite. If you haven’t listed to them yet, I urge you to jump on them now.
Now on to the meat of this review: The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage. Pullman has this ability to take one of his stories and create new stories within that world that don’t feel old or hackneyed. Each one of the above stories, even within the trilogy itself, felt fresh and new, with new stuff happening, and nothing ever felt out of place. Well, he does it again with La Belle Sauvage. La Belle Sauvage is an amazing addition to the series. There were times when the suspense got to be so great, I’m pretty sure I developed an ulcer. Now to go into the story in proper detail I will need to present some minor spoilers (things I didn’t know going into it) so if you want to remain spoiler free, turn away now. Otherwise proceed:
Minor Spoiler Warning
The story takes place about 10 years before The Golden Compass, right after Lyra is born. She actually ends up being a central figure in the story as we see our two new childhood protagonists Malcolm Polstead and Alice Parslow take center stage. The story really kicks off when we see a massive flood take over England, one the world hasn’t seen in ages, and the kids need to protect Lyra from the flood and those who are trying to do her harm: a new villain named Gerard Bonneville and the CDC — essentially an arm of the church taking on a similar role that we have seen before.
In addition to the new characters we see an array of old favorites pop in and out of the story, but in general none of them play an overly major role. They are all supporting characters, letting the three principal characters shine — and shine they do. Although we get a fairly comprehensive backstory on Malcolm, Alice remains an enigma through much of the story, and through to the end I would say. I still don’t know as much about her as I would like, though. She is a very closed off, snippy character that grows on you over time. Yes she can be a bit of a “b---h,” but she genuinely cares and it shows. She’s fierce and it works. Malcolm on the other hand is inquisitive and is pretty much forced into his situation, one that over the course of the story, he grows to accept and to go along with for the ride.
Bonneville though is another matter all together. He is as bad a character as you can get. In His Dark Materials, all of the “bad guys” were hard to peg down if they were really bad at any particular point. They were all over the place. There was no black and white, it was all grey. There’s no doubt about Bonneville though. He’s as bad as you can get in this universe. Pullman sets up his universe so well that even though Bonneville and his daemon, a hyena, do things we had never seen before, they all make sense. And they are all repulsive and incomprehensible.
As the story builds, the tension builds. And each instance of “oh thank god that is over” is followed by another one even worse. The build up of the flood is remarkable, how they are removed from anything that they ever loved and placed in this bizarre landscape they can’t even begin to guess how to navigate. Everything is great, that is, until we get near the end. This is the only issue I had with the story because it felt unusually out of place. Now, I know it will either be explained in the next two books, or it won’t, but it just felt like we went to a fantasy realm we hadn’t been to before with no explanation on how we got there or how we get back. And what did it all mean? I guess I’ll have to wait for future installments to answer those questions. I least I hope they might be answered. Pullman has a habit of leaving in-depth explanations out in favor of the subtle explanations, that answer the questions but don’t outright state them to the reader.
Like the previous novels, I listened to this one on audiobook and even though it was not a full cast, it was still remarkable. I loved every second and couldn’t wait for more. The narrator, Michael Sheen, has the perfect voice for listening to and his hyena laugh is downright disturbing, as it should be.
Overall, this book is magnificent. It is easily the best book I have “read” in along time and I would recommend anyone to jump in. Even if you haven’t read His Dark Materials before, Pullman sets up this book wonderfully so that it can be possible to jump in here, then proceed on to the original trilogy itself. As far as I am aware, the next two books in the Book of Dust trilogy take place 20 years after this book, which is 10 years after His Dark Materials, making this a great starting off point.