I loved His Dark Materials trilogy so I was very excited when I realized that Philip Pullman had a new novel out. I was a little bit less sure if I necessarily wanted a new novel in the same universe but was definitely willing to give it a shot. As much as I love Harry Potter, I would at this point prefer to get another murder mystery from J.K. Rowling than another tie in to Hogwarts and that universe. As a result, I wasn’t sure I really needed another story involving Lyra even if I wanted more from Pullman. Fortunately, I think he does a very good job of capturing the magic of the trilogy without taking anything away from it.
It’s been a long time since I read the trilogy, so I had a hard time sometimes determining which characters in this novel were completely new and which characters were from the earlier novels (although it helped when Pullman would make statements like, “in ten years, Lyra would notice the beautiful coloring of his daemon”). While I may not have remembered everything and probably missed a few references, the novel works on its own and doesn’t necessarily require a reread or close knowledge of the trilogy since it does a good job of introducing everyone, the concepts, and the story.
The novel takes place when Lyra is six months old, and many of the secrets of the trilogy are at this point widely known gossip. Given the circumstances of her birth, neither parents has custodial rights to Lyra, and she ends up at a monastery under the care of some nuns. Malcolm is an 11 year old boy who helps at his parents’ inn and does odd jobs at the monastery. Due to his curiosity and precociousness, Malcolm notices that there is something much bigger going on around him, and ends up helping an organization called Oakley Street in an effort to keep Lyra safe.
I loved many of the characters that Pullman brought to life, and their interactions with Malcolm. Since it is set ten years earlier than the trilogy, I enjoyed reading about the rise in power of the Church and the CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline) although as in the previous novels, Pullman shows the complexity of good and evil, right and wrong, black and white. While there are organizations within the church that are sinister, the nuns are strict but good, and have concerns about this growing power, even resisting its agents and their authority.
Of course the other thing that I love about this world/parallel universe are the daemons – in Lyra’s world, people’s souls are manifested outwardly as animals. They shift between forms for children and settle into their final versions sometime during puberty, but it also means that every character death has an extra dimension of sadness since an adorable animal has also now disappeared from the world. Pullman even creates sympathy for a villain due to his portrayals of the interactions between the villain and his daemon, creating pity in the readers for characters that are decidedly malevolent.
The ending felt a bit abrupt. We of course know what happens to Lyra next, but I hope we learn more about the fates of some of the other characters introduced in this novel in the future volumes, and that they are released soon.