New Pullman Novel Fails to Live Up to Earlier Work

I attended Catholic school for 12 years, and my first act of heresy involved the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. A high fantasy series rooted in the tradition of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the trilogy is set in a parallel world dominated by a powerful theocracy that suppresses dissent and free thought, commonly referred to as the Church. The world is full of wonderful details, like souls that live outside of people’s bodies in animal forms, powerful armored bears, and magic particles that glide and swirl through the air. But the series is also a scathing critique of the Catholic Church, and in 2007, the Catholic League actively campaigned against the first book in the series, The Golden Compass (titled Northern Lights outside of North America). According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the series was among the top 100 banned or challenged books of 2008–2009. The Golden Compass was one of my favorite books when I was a child, and I still go back to it today. When I saw that Pullman had released the first book in a new series set in the same world, I knew I had to read La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of The Book of Dust, as soon as I could. When spring break came around, I delved in eagerly. I was mildly disappointed.

La Belle Sauvage is a prequel to the original series, and centers around a boy named Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon (the physical, animal embodiment of a person’s soul), Asta. When Malcolm and Asta find a tiny acorn holding a mysterious note, they are drawn into the periphery of an organization devoted to defying the Church. As they watch for the Church’s agents, they are focused on taking care of and protecting a young baby, Lyra — the future protagonist of His Dark Materials. When a flood whisks Malcolm, Asta, Lyra, and a dishwasher named Alice away on Malcolm’s boat, La Belle Sauvage, they must find a way to protect the baby and bring her to her father, Lord Asriel, while being pursued by the Church’s police and a man with a terrifying hyena dæmon, who both want to get to Lyra first.

Some themes and characters from this new novel are reminiscent of the first series. Familiar faces like Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, Coram van Texel, and Lyra are back, but they are not as prominent as they were in the initial series. Mostly, the novel focuses on new characters Malcolm, Hannah Relf, and Alice. Malcolm is a precocious, perceptive 11-year-old boy who works at his parents’ restaurant and inn and helps Hannah, who is a scholar at this world’s Oxford University. She studies the alethiometer, a truth-telling device which is extremely hard to read and understand. Hannah helps pull Malcolm into the periphery of the Church-defying organization. Alice is a fiery, no-nonsense girl who ends up helping Malcolm care for baby Lyra after the flood washes them away.

La Belle Sauvage is meant for an older audience than the original His Dark Materials trilogy. For instance, Alice has to deal with being sexually harassed by a bar patron, and another character was imprisoned for sexually assaulting a young girl. There are also inside jokes that children might not understand. For example, a key feature in Pullman’s novels is the existence of multiple universes, and at one point in the novel, Malcolm reads a book titled A Brief History of Time, alluding to the book of the same name by the late Stephen Hawking.

La Belle Sauvage does not capture the magic of The Golden Compass, failing to absorb the reader into the world the same way the original series does. I was enthusiastic to read it at first, but once I started getting into the novel, I had to push myself onward at times. By no means, however, is this a bad read. The descriptions are excellent, and the antagonist can genuinely fill a reader with dread. It also expands the universe that Pullman created in his first series in interesting ways. However, there are no real stakes. The reader knows from the events of the first series that Lyra will be perfectly fine; she will get to her destination and live a decent childhood before getting wrapped up in the events of His Dark Materials. I will be the first to admit that part of my disappointment may stem from nostalgia. I can be biased when it comes to things I enjoy. I would recommend the original series first before you read this novel, since this one contains many major spoilers for the first series, and I found His Dark Materials to be far more enjoyable than this first foray into The Book of Dust. However, the second book in this new series, The Secret Commonwealth, is scheduled to come out later this year. I truly hope it lives up to the first series more effectively than La Belle Sauvage.