Many, many years ago, my cousin recommended that I read The Golden Compass (1996) by Philip Pullman. As I began reading, I was skeptical. Every human has a little animal (called a daemon) that follows them around? I thought it was weird and wasn’t sure I would get into it. But as I continued reading, I became attached to the characters and immersed in the story. Now that it’s been well over a decade since I read The Golden Compass, I can remember very few details of the actual story, but I still clearly remember the emotional gut punch that hit me near the end of the book. I quickly read the next two books in His Dark Materials trilogy and enjoyed all of them.
So, when I saw that Pullman was writing a companion trilogy to His Dark Materials, I knew I would be reading them eventually. I was a little worried because I did not remember any of the details of the previous trilogy, but that didn’t matter in the end. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (2017) begins years before we meet Lyra, the protagonist in The Golden Compass. However, it does take place in the same world. The church is obsessed with power and tyrannically controls information and behavior. The church is often at odds with other intellectuals in their world. Every person has a daemon, an animal that is part of them and represents them. Daemons can change shape when the person is young, but settles into one form when one becomes grown.
Malcolm is an eleven-year-old boy that lives near Oxford. He helps his mother and father run The Trout, an inn near the river. He is hard-working, conscientious, and smart. He spends his free time rowing along the river on his canoe, which he calls La Belle Sauvage. One day he spies a nervous man drop something. Almost immediately after, the man is followed, captured, and dragged off by mysterious and imposing men in suits. Some days later, Malcolm learns that the man was found dead in the river.
The item that the man drops eventually leads Malcolm to Dr. Hannah Relf, a lovely woman, and a scholar with a special talent with the alethiometer–a rare instrument that can obliquely answer questions for those who know how to read it. The two become confidants and friends, and they work together to figure out what’s happening. Hannah has already been secretly working for another group that has been organized to defy the church.
In addition, Malcolm does odd jobs for the nuns across the river. He is intrigued when they take in a baby girl named Lyra and begin to care for her. The rumor is that Lyra is Lord Asriel’s child. Lord Asriel killed a man and is not allowed near her. Lyra’s mother doesn’t want her, and the nuns have stepped in. But there’s a lot of interest in this small child. The nuns begin bulking up their security, men from the CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline) barge in and try to take her away, and a scary man with a mangled hyena daemon seems to be after her.
Everything comes to a crisis when the nonstop rain creates a tremendous flood and Gerard Bonneville (the man with the hyena daemon) comes after Lyra. Malcolm, Alice (a sixteen-year-old girl who works at the inn), and Lyra just barely manage to escape in Malcolm’s canoe. However, the flooding is so bad, they are carried downriver. Malcolm has the vague notion to bring Lyra to Lord Asriel in London where she will be safe. And so their adventures begin. Chased by Gerard Bonneville and the CCD, Alice and Malcolm try to keep Lyra safe, warm, and fed. They run into old friends, betrayers, witches, gyptians, a fairy, and others.
There were a lot of things I liked about this book. I now love the idea of every person having a daemon. They help express what the characters are feeling, and the connection between the daemon and their human adds an another layer to almost every interaction. I was happy to get back into Pullman’s world. I also really liked Malcolm. He was honorable, resourceful, and kind. Alice was also a very interesting, and eventually likable, character. The mystery, danger, characters, and story-building that led up to the flood was all very good. I’m always a fan of adventure and survival stories.
However, I was a little disappointed near the end of the book. Malcolm’s and Alice’s struggles on the water started to feel a little random and repetitive. Too often, unexplained things were simply happening to them, and the coincidences were a little too much. Since I couldn’t understand why these things were happening, I started to lose faith in the world that Pullman had created. So, Malcolm’s canoe is dragged into some weird underworld. But if the current was so strong that it pulled them in and there was no escape, why were no other boats sucked down there? If for some reason, Malcolm’s canoe was dragged down for a specific purpose, what was that purpose? There were a number of episodes like this, and I began to feel a little frustrated.
***SPOILERS*** In addition, I was disappointed in the ending. I wanted a little more closure. I wanted Malcolm to see his parents again, and I wanted to know more about what was happening with Hannah Relf. Instead, we find out how Lyra ended up in Oxford, which was interesting, but at this point I care more about Malcolm. I’m assuming that Pullman is setting everything up for the next two books, but as a stand-alone novel, I was a little disappointed. ***END SPOILERS***
Although The Book of Dust did not quite live up to my memories of The Golden Compass, I’m glad I read it, and I’m looking forward to Book 2.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.