A mysterious substance called Dust; the alethiometer, an instrument that can reveal the truth; and daemons, animal-shaped manifestations of people’s inner selves: we are in familiar territory, the world of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. Almost 20 years after the last book in the trilogy was published, Pullman is revisiting its universe, taking us back 12 years when Lyra, the intrepid heroine of His Dark Materials is still a baby. The Magisterium—an institution of organized religion that not only wants to control this world but all the alternate worlds that exist—is already a force to be reckoned with.
A centuries-old witches’ prophecy says that Lyra will save the world—a prophecy that puts her in danger from the Magisterium. She is handed her over to the nuns at the priory of St. Rosamund by a group of important men who want to protect her. Malcolm, a 10-year-old boy who visits the nuns, loves the child the minute he sees her and is determined to protect her.
An observant child who keeps his counsel, Malcolm learns a lot from the conversations he overhears in his parents’ pub. He learns about Dust, a substance that the Magisterium has forbidden anyone from talking about. He hears the gyptians (gypsies) talk about an imminent flood that will sweep everything away.
Malcolm gets to know Hannah Relf, a woman working on understanding the alethiometer—another thing forbidden by the Magisterium, which is seeking out the instruments and destroying them. Hannah is working for Oakley Street, an organization against the Magisterium. Malcolm and Hannah meet regularly, and the boy passes on what he overhears in the pub.
Eventually the floods come, and Malcolm and Alice, a young girl working in the pub, take Lyra and escape in his boat, La Belle Sauvage. Malcolm decides to take Lyra to her father in London, where she will be safe. The trio are pursued by Bonneville, a nasty piece of work—all charm on the surface but vicious beneath. His true nature is revealed by his daemon, a snarling, three-legged hyena; the man is so deranged that he harms his own daemon.
I have read His Dark Materials and was glad when Pullman revived this world—it is so strange and compelling. The overwhelming mood of The Book of Dust is one of shadows and lurking menace. Pullman does this so well that there are times when it feels claustrophobic. The Magisterium has spies everywhere and is ruthless. And then there is Bonneville, a constant maniacal presence. The world Malcolm and Alice are thrown into is a far cry from the warmth of the pub—they are on their own, trying to keep Lyra safe from forces they don’t entirely understand.
There is a lovely passage when Malcolm, exhausted and battered, thinks of home: “his mother’s kitchen, her calm sardonic presence, shepherd’s pies and apple crumbles and steam and warmth, and his father laughing and telling stories and telling the football results and listening as Malcolm told him about this theory or that discovery and being proud of him; and before he could help it he was sobbing as if his heart had been broken, and it was his fate to drift forever on a worldwide flood further and further away from everything that was home, and they would never know where he was”.
Judging by this book, The Book of Dust trilogy is going to be much darker than His Dark Materials. An appropriate reflection of our times.
See also my review of Philip Pullman’s essays, Daemon Voices.