It's easy to feel wary of prequels and prologues, particularly when the story in question is as widely beloved as The Golden Compass. But with his first installment of The Book of Dust, out Oct. 19, Philip Pullman proves that there is still a wealth of stories left to tell in and around Lyra's Oxford. In fact, this is the story of how young Lyra Belacqua came to Oxford in the first place. Pullman's writing is as deftly brilliant as ever, and Volume One: La Belle Sauvage welcomes us back to his alternate England, where witches skim the skies on cloud pine branches and each and every person is accompanied by an animal dæmon, their own external soul.
The titular La Belle Sauvage herself is a canoe, owned by the young Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon Asta. Malcolm is a seemingly ordinary boy. His family runs an inn. But through a succession of strange visitors, a mysterious baby of great importance, and an unusual acorn dropped in the grass, Malcolm finds himself tangled up in the secret war being waged in Oxford and beyond. As Malcolm is drawn deeper into this network of spies, he and his unlikely companions are swept away on a river voyage that will defy the bounds of reality.
As with our fierce Lyra and her dæmon Pan, Malcolm and Asta make up one wonderfully real child. Pullman's young protagonists are never too precocious or saccharine, and always just the right amount of rough and tumble. Rounding out the cast is Alice, the sullen teenage kitchen maid, and Hannah Relf, the bookish scholar whose skill with the alethiometer makes her a valuable asset (and dangerous target) in the wars to come.
Fans of His Dark Materials will be pleased to know that we meet a young and commanding Lord Asriel, too, as well as the alluring Mrs. Coulter and her golden monkey. La Belle Sauvage is full of hints and nods at the events of The Golden Compass and the books that follow, but it also stands solidly on its own.
In that way, La Belle Sauvage is somewhat in the vein of The Hobbit or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: a smaller story, safely tucked into the larger arc of a grand, fantastic adventure (and, ignoring the glaring differences between Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis’ opinions on organized religion, this book also takes us on a tumultuous boat trip). It adds to the world of His Dark Materials without diminishing the power of the first trilogy.
Although The Golden Compass came out over 20 years ago, returning to Lyra's world feels as natural as if we've only just left. Pullman is an undisputed master at his craft. For all of its witches and dæmons and talking bears, his world starts out solid, lived in. We accompany Malcolm on the small adventures of changing the shutters at the priory and serving Hungarian wine in his father's inn. We forget that animal soul-companions aren't a natural and normal part of life. Then slowly, with expert precision, we are drawn into a spy story, a spine-chilling mystery, and finally a high sea adventure, a fantastic odyssey through the secret dangers of this other Southern England, complete with a flood of biblical proportions.
And of course, because this is a Philip Pullman book, the fantasy elements are a beautiful meld of philosophy and myth. Much like His Dark Materials, volume one of The Book of Dust manages to balance child-friendly adventure with adult-level theological intrigue. La Belle Sauvage is for readers of all ages, but Pullman never talks down to the children in his audience. For one thing, the central antagonist of this volume has a dæmon that is guaranteed to haunt some young people's dreams. For another, Pullman never pulls any punches when depicting the dangers of authoritarian ruling bodies like The Magisterium. And without giving anything away, there is one magnificent drop of a well-earned f-bomb towards the very end of the book.
Whether you're already an expert on Rusakov Particles or a newcomer to Philip Pullman's multiverse, La Belle Sauvage is a thrilling, nuanced introduction to a new trilogy. This first volume of The Book of Dust leaves us with more than a few questions, sure, but it is also a triumphant return to the alternate Oxford we love.
As for where the story of Malcolm and Lyra and the phenomenon of Dust is heading next, we'll just have to wait for volume two.