'La Belle Sauvage' is a welcome return to a complex fantasy world, albeit with some pitfalls
The fantasy world Philip Pullman created in His Dark Materials — a world where everyone has their own spirit animal companion called daemons, where polar bears speak and fight and wear armor, where a subtle knife can cut holes in the multiverse and only a golden compass can tell the truth of reality, where God is not just absent or indifferent but an actively malignant force — was too good to waste on just three books. So now, 17 years after completing his original trilogy, Pullman has returned to that world — and its fiery protagonist, Lyra Belacqua — with a new series, The Book of Dust. Its first installment, La Belle Sauvage, is a thrilling adventure and a welcome return to the world of daemons and Dust, though it does suffer from some common prequel pitfalls.
We live in an age of sequels, prequels, reboots, and revamps. In interviews, Pullman has promised that The Book of Dust is something different — he has called it an “equel” that “doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it.” Nevertheless, La Belle Sauvage plays out as a straightforward prequel to The Golden Compass, set 10 years beforehand and showing how Lyra came to be living at Oxford’s Jordan College at the beginning of that book. Compared to the other questions Pullman’s fantasy has explored — Is matter conscious? What happens if God dies? — Lyra’s location does not seem like a particularly pressing point, but perhaps it will resonate differently with future Book of Dust installments (which, according to Pullman, will swing around and pick up 10 years after His Dark Materials).
So Lyra is once again the book’s focus, but this time she’s only a baby. Instead, the plot engine is driven by a young boy named Malcolm Polstead, the inquisitive son of an innkeeper and a delightful addition to Pullman’s canon of characters. Malcolm first meets baby Lyra at the local nun priory, where she was originally kept to protect her from the more insidious factions of the Church. But when his town is hit with a flood of truly Biblical proportions, Malcolm and his fellow inn-worker Alice Parslow take Lyra away in the boy’s canoe (whose cheeky name gives the book its title), hoping to find sanctuary before the Church’s agents catch up with them. Their most dedicated pursuer is a savage new villain named George Bonneville, a disgraced scientist who hunts baby Lyra for mysterious (but undeniably evil) ends. Bonneville is a good seducer, but his charisma is undercut by his daemon, a vicious hyena that can’t help gnawing at the bloody stump of its missing leg. In fact, Bonneville and his hyena only get more and more beaten down over the course of their pursuit (reminiscent of Frederick Chilton in Hannibal), but that only makes them more dangerous — requiring new and successively more intense sacrifices from Malcolm and Alice to hold them off.
When it’s not concerned with Malcolm and Alice’s adventures, the first half of La Belle Sauvage also sets up an intriguing espionage plotline — featuring another new character, the academic Dr. Hannah Relf — that provides more texture to this alternate world history. But once the flood arrives, that side of the plot falls away and the reader is left wondering whether they’ll ever see Dr. Relf again or whether any of her scenes mattered very much. Also, La Belle Sauvage’s focus on a young character who will someday be important means it falls prey to the same strange whiplash effect as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace or even Blade Runner 2049, where the story is resolved in a satisfying fashion for its true person of interest, but not for the character you were actually following along with. Pullman is great at getting readers to invest in brand new characters rather quickly, so it’s a disappointment to see them left hanging at the end. Presumably Malcolm, Alice, and Dr. Relf will show up again in the following books (if only in brief cameo appearances the way Lyra’s parents, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, do here) but tying up their knots a little better would have made La Belle Sauvage a much more satisfying self-contained story that also set up good world-building for the future, especially since 20 years will pass in this world before we see any of them again.
Also, anyone coming to The Book of Dust to find out more about the mysterious titular substance will have to wait a little longer yet. In His Dark Materials, Pullman implied that Dust was the way that matter became aware of itself, thus making it the key to his entire literary project. In the Bible, the first humans becoming self-aware is portrayed as a sin so mortal that our entire race has since been doomed to suffering and toiling in this fallen world rather than luxuriating forever in the Garden of Eden. Pullman has the precise opposite view of this point — contrary to the teachings of Genesis, he believes self-awareness is not humanity’s worst failing but instead its greatest virtue. That’s where Dust comes in, to show that everything about consciousness is contained within matter itself and therefore has no need for the restrictive spiritual dogmas of the Church. But aside from Bonneville’s connection to Dust (he was a researcher into the “Rusakov field” and believes Dust could be the key to understanding it, the way the real-life Higgs-boson “God particle” was long sought as the key to understanding the Higgs field) it’s hardly even mentioned here.
Nevertheless, there does sometimes seem to be something like Dust at work when it comes to Pullman’s books. His Dark Materials was released just as the new atheist movement was picking up steam and the Catholic Church’s massive sex-abuse scandal was being exposed, giving wide resonance to his story of a rebellion against God’s false authority. And now La Belle Sauvage, a story about surviving a flood and trying to make your way in a world submerged in water, arrives just after series of devastating hurricanes have wreaked havoc across the United States and Puerto Rico. It also depicts the insidious growth of an authoritarian police state just as fascist movements have gained new resurgence in the real world. Once again, Pullman’s fantasy arrives precisely when it can teach us the most about ourselves, as if it were guided by Dust itself. B+