At long last, Philip Pullman returns to us with volume one of The Book of Dust, a companion trilogy to his much beloved His Dark Materials. I, for one, was a little nervous to read it. The Golden Compasswas such a defining part of my childhood. My friends and I spent hours on the school courtyard, seriously debating what shape our own dæmons would take (for the record, mine is a lynx). And with all due respect to J.K. Rowling and George Lucas, we've all seen creators go a little overboard in adding extra backstory to their respective fantasy realms.
But I am here to tell you that The Book of Dust Volume One: La Belle Sauvageis the perfect reintroduction to the steeples and canals of Lyra's Oxford. I should have trusted in Philip Pullman, an undisputed master of the fantasy novel. Only Pullman could start off a book with cozy, comforting descriptions of fried potatoes and friendly nuns, and then catapult his reader into a pulse-pounding, surreal river voyage that is half spy adventure, half mythical odyssey.
This first volume follows Malcolm Polstead, an innkeeper's son, along with his dæmon Asta and his trusty canoe, the titular La Belle Sauvage. While paddling the canals of Oxford, Malcolm accidentally finds himself at the center of a strange mystery, with dire consequences that could reshape the whole of his world. La Belle Sauvage captures the spirit of the original trilogy without undercutting Lyra's own story, and Pullman's writing is as sharp and as transportive as ever. Here are a few of the most striking quotes from this first volume of The Book of Dust:
1"His dæmon, a large cat with fur of a thousand beautiful autumnal colors, stalked the corners of the study before leaping gracefully to Coram's lap."
2"Robin Asta peered at the page from his forearm and read, '"Aurora: a luminous celestial phenomenon of anbarical character seen in the polar regions, with a tremulous motion and streamers of light, sometimes known as the northern lights"... You sure that was the word?'"
3"Malcolm saw something out of the corner of his eye—or was it in his eye? A little patch of white on the floor of the canoe. And then, without the slightest warning, it became the shimmering, flickering spot of light, floating in the darkness ahead of him."
4"The gentleman waiting gave him a start, though all he was doing was sitting by the cold fireplace. Perhaps it was his dæmon, a beautiful silvery spotter leopard, or perhaps it was his dark, saturnine expression: in any event, Malcolm felt daunted, and very young and small. Asta became a moth.
5"It welcomed her hands as if they were the very ones that had worn down the golden case over centuries and smoothed away the knurling of the wheels. As soon as she felt it, she wanted to be alone with it; she wanted to spend hours and days in its company; she want it never to be more than an arm's length away."
6"If in the morning the water on Port Meadow lay calm and still like a great lagoon, and the sun came out and glittered and sparkled on the water, and all the buildings of Oxford shone against the blue sky, as if they'd been freshly painted, it would be easy to get across to the city center and find Jordan College, he thought."
7"'The witches of the Enara region had heard voices in the aurora—that's how they put it; I gather it's a metaphor—voices that said that the child was destined to put an end to destiny. That's all. They didn't know what that meant, and I sure as hell don't either.'"
8"Pan was a butterfly again, a pure white one, and was dancing in the air with the cloud of blue ones, successfully this time, and Malcolm suddenly thought: Suppose her dæmon is the whole cloud of butterflies, not just one of them? That made him shiver."
9"Her dæmon was disconcerting. He was a monkey with long golden fur, and if there was an expression in his black eyes, it was unfathomable."
10"If he'd been the sort of boy who acquired a nickname, he would no doubt have been known as Professor, he wasn't that sort of boy."
11"At one point, they lost sight of all land altogether and might have been out on the ocean. At another, Nugent was certain that he could see a beast like a crocodile at least as long as the boat shadowing them without ever revealing itself; and then one night there were mysterious lights moving below the surface, and the sound of an orchestra playing music such as none of them had head before."
12"That night, he dreamed of the wild dogs again, his savage dogs, with bloodstained muzzles and torn ears and broken teeth, with wild eyes and slavering jaws and scarred flanks, howling and barking as they raced around him, surging up to lick his face thrusting themselves at his hands, rubbing themselves against his legs, a tumult of canine fury."
13"And everywhere they went, something went with them, behind, just beyond the edge of eyesight, something that flickered and vanished and then appeared again when they looked at something else. They both saw it."
14"They'd have to move soon, though. Malcolm looked at that wild waste, and his heart quailed. His little boat, and all that force of water...Calm rivers and still backwaters and shallow canals were one thing. This was another thing entirely."
15"...he was happiest on his own, playing with his dæmon, Asta, in their canoe on which Malcolm had painted the name LA BELLE SAUVAGE. A witty acquaintance thought it amusing to scrawl an S over the V, and Malcolm patiently painted it out three times before losing his temper and knocking the fool into the water, at which point they declared a truce."