Pullman makes a welcome and largely successful return to the world of His Dark Materials with the first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, set when Lyra Belacqua is just a baby. I LOVED all three books of HDM but most especially the middle one, The Subtle Knife which introduced Will.
In the familiar steampunky Oxford, where a person’s soul is an externalized animal daemon and alethiometers can reveal the truth, 6-month old Lyra has been placed in the sanctuary of a nunnery to protect her from the Magisterium, the ruling religious body, after a witch has prophesied that she is “destined to put an end to destiny.”
The protagonist is 11-year old Malcolm Polstead – a marvelously enterprising, curious, and full-hearted boy who is something of a precursor of Will. He helps out at his parents’ pub and at the nunnery where he meets and becomes deeply enamored of baby Lyra. In his wanderings around the city he becomes involved with a scholar-spy who might be working against the Magisterium.
When a supernatural storm floods the country, Malcolm, along with sharp and no-nonsense 16 year-old Alice, rescues Lyra from the nunnery. They set off in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, to London to the perceived safety of Lyra’s father. On this odyssey, which has rather more natural and supernatural encounters than I really wanted, they are relentlessly pursued by a smiling villain and his hideously deformed hyena daemon.
Pullman expands the world – three alethiometers! – and adds new characters including the uncomfortably creepy villain, Gerard Bonneville. There are returning characters, including Lyra’s parents Lord Asriel and the chilling Mrs. Coulter, which might bring a frisson of familiarity to HDM readers but new readers will not be disadvantaged.
The target is still organized religion and Pullman pursues this with the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Magisterium’s secret police, and the League of St. Alexander, which empowers children to turn in supposed enemies of the Church. Dust is discussed briefly, but to be honest, I didn’t feel I got much out of those passages and recall feeling similarly vague in the later (chronologically) books.
The ending is frustratingly abrupt, raising many questions and it is unclear how or even if the next book in the series, apparently set a decade after His Dark Materials, will answer them. Nonetheless, even with flaws, this is an impressive extension to a beloved series that will appeal to tweens, teens, and adults.