Book Review: The Book of Dust
After a 17 year hiatus, Philip Pullman returns with The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, the first in a new trilogy set ten years before his iconic His Dark Materials trilogy. Whether or not you are familiar with Pullman’s previous (and amazing) trilogy, you will fall into the fantastic world Pullman creates.
Malcolm Polstead is the young protagonist that carries us along with him as he discovers the world is a darker place than he thought. His parents own a local pub, The Trout; it is here where he hears about an infant girl that has been placed in the care of the nuns with whom he visits and assists each week. The infant girl is Lyra Belacqua (who is the protagonist of His Dark Materials). Malcolm also meets an Oxford scholar, Hannah Relf. Not only does she encourage his curious intellect, but she also enlists his help. Hannah also works for a secret agency working against the Magisterium, a tyrannical religious organization that is slowly taking over the government. Malcolm is to bring her any bits of gossip or information he hears at The Trout. One bit involves a prophecy about a young infant girl…and the Magisterium begins looking for her.
When a cataclysmic flood hits England, Malcolm decides he must save Lyra. He flees in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, along with Alice, a kitchen maid from The Trout, and Lyra. The three of them (and, of course, their daemons. Daemons, one of the most beautiful inventions of Pullman’s, are animal incarnations of a person’s soul. Each human has a daemon that can shape-shift and take on any animal form to reflect their human’s inner emotional state. Once they hit puberty, though, the daemon takes on one fixed state.) must attempt to make it to the safety of Oxford, where Lyra can either be given to her father Lord Asriel or be given asylum at one of the colleges. Not only are they pursued by the Magisterium, but they are also pursued by a hair-raising predator, George Bonneville, who is evil through and through.
Like in His Dark Materials, Pullman explores many intellectual and adult themes that will be appealing to older readers (and his fantastic world building and thrilling suspense of plot will keep young readers happy, too). Religion (a giant flood wipes out most of England paired with the sinister religious order dictating how people should think and act), free will, gender (all of Pullman’s work, including this, are full of strong, complex women), knowledge, innocence, and experience all play a part (and, note, his tip, as with His Dark Materials to William Blake’s Song of Innocence and Experience). The Book of Dust is bursting with allegory.
I can’t gush enough about The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. It is a book worth reading several times and one that I can’t recommend enough.