In 1995, Philip Pullman, hitherto a more-than-competent author of the Victorian mysteries solved by Sally Lockhart, followed J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis into the realm of internationally-known fantasy by publishing “Northern Lights” “The Golden Compass” to American readers. The first volume of the his “Dark Materials” trilogy, it was followed by “The Subtle Knife” (1997) and “The Amber Spyglass” (2000). Following the career of the brave, stubborn Lyra Belacqua and, in the second two books, her friend Will Perry, the trilogy is an epic, with repeated resonances of everything from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to quantum physics. It celebrates the virtues of loyalty, love, and individual liberty, and damns the hypocrisy and power-seeking politics of repressive ideology. It’s wonderful. Read it, if you haven’t. If you have, rejoice that after 17 years, Pullman has fulfilled a longtime promise and published “La Belle Sauvage,” an “equel” (neither prequel or sequel, he insists) that is the first volume of a linked trilogy called “The Book of Dust.”
Unlike the earlier volumes, which ranged first to the north of Pullman’s world, then across contiguous worlds, and finally a terrifying underworld “La Belle Sauvage” is set in Oxford, 10 years before “The Golden Compass” begins. Lyra is only 6 months old, but she is an important pawn in the political strife engaging Brytain, in which the Magisterium, a group of oppressive religious ideologues linked to Geneva, has gained power in Parliament and established a Consistrial Court of Discipline (the CCD), essentially a Stasi that is terrifying politicians and people alike into ideological conformity. The CCD, knowing that there is a prophecy about Lyra, wants to get hold of her and educate her as their tool. But against this force of repression stands Oakley Street, a Resistance to which Lord Asriel loosely belongs, and which wants to save Lyra from the CCD at all costs. Into this fraught situation walks Malcolm Polstead, the 11-year-old potboy at The Trout, his father’s pub, and our hero.
Malcolm becomes involved in the struggle between the CCD and Oakley Street when he is out in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, and sees a man drop an acorn-like item that rolls in the bushes. After looking for it vainly, the man starts across a bridge, only to be arrested by the CCD. When Malcolm finds the "acorn," it turns out to contain a message from one Oakley Street spy to another. With the help of an alethiometer, the woman who was supposed to receive it finds Malcolm and realizes what a wonderful spy a potboy could be. Meanwhile, across the river, the nuns of Godstow (who are, unusually for Pullman, religious figures of generosity and charity) have become the custodians of Lyra, with whom Malcolm is enchanted. As the CCD closes in on Lyra, inordinate rain causes a biblical-sized flood, and Malcolm and Alice, the dishwasher in the Trout, rescue Lyra and paddle La Belle Sauvage down the flooded Thames to find Lord Asriel, hoping he can arrange for Lyra's sanctuary in Jordan College. It's a half magical odyssey, half escape tale, for behind them there is not just the CCD, but the madman Bonneville, the scientist who understands the nature of the particle called Dust. A villain whose hyena daemon both suggests his career as a serial rapist and suffers from her human's savagery, Bonneville is never far behind La Belle Sauvage, seeking Lyra for some terrifying dark purpose. And the canoe, for all her beautiful craftsmanship, can withstand the powers of the flooded river only so long. Pullman is a magician with a plot, but here, as in the earlier books, what rivets the reader is his imaginary world, one in which every human has a daemon (a soul? an id?) of the opposite sex, in which an alethiometer tells the truth. If you are unacquainted with alethiometers and daemons, you would be better off meeting them in “His Dark Materials.” But if you have read the earlier trilogy, you will love this wonderful equel.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.