Review – ‘The Book of Dust, Vol 1: “La Belle Sauvage”‘ by Philip Pullman

We have been waiting 22 years for more about Phillip Pullman’s steam-punk world, where every human is accompanied by a totem animal. Is it worth the wait? Yes. If you haven’t read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy to which this is a prequel I think you will manage fine. I would say start here, except that we are currently two books short of the promised set, which will leave you with gaps to the more demanding, later trilogy. ‘Dust’ was being researched enthusiastically as a major theme in those books. Dust begins to be explored in this prequel. All the books are set  in a kind of parallel, steam punk, world to our own, so they have not aged in the 22 years in the way that their readers (sadly) have.

Philip Pullman writes so warmly about his child protagonists. This is partly because every soul on earth comes in two complementary parts, so no-one is ever truly alone. The soul, or perhaps conscience, is in the form of an animal daemon. Human and daemon are always in complete harmony and close proximity. Terrible anguish results if they are separated. No right-thinking person in Pullman’s world would dream of hurting one (although, not all the characters in this book are right-thinking). In children the daemon can change form at will in response to circumstances or emotions. Around puberty the form hardens. Lord Asriel’s daemon is a snow leopard: the daemons of servants are always dogs.

Another warmth-imparting theme is food. Malcolm Polstead, the youthful hero, has a mother who is a kick-ass cook. She cooks for her husband’s inn, and she cooks all that good stick-to-your-ribs stuff that we Baby Boomers remember: pies and roly-poly pudding, spotted dick and thick aromatic stews with dumplings. Quite what modern youngsters will make of all this carbohydrate and red meat I cannot imagine.

A further strand is Pullman’s desire to point up the best in people who march to the beat of a different drum and are marginalised by society’s movers and shakers. His marvellous flights of imagination enable him to meld witches, gypsies, river gods, children, academics and magicians within a surprisingly ‘normal’ steam punk existence.

The final thread is a flood of biblical proportions, which sweeps through Oxford and the surrounding countryside. Oxford locals will, no doubt, enjoy this fictional flood to this which actually occur on the water meadows. The story becomes a chase as the protagonists are swept away by it. Great evil is felt, great grief is experienced. Enormous courage is shown. The god of the river shows himself.

Because of the warm world Pullman evokes, those who seek to destroy it immediately come across as cold. Pullman is known for his antipathy to organised religion, and there is a very cold thread indeed which draws on that. Pullman doesn’t seem to have much time for politics or science either. But he certainly seems to believe in evil.

The unwanted baby, Lyra Belacqua (the heroine of the later trilogy), has been placed with a convent. However, the child soon becomes the target of several different kidnap enterprises. Only young Malcolm (who has formed an attachment to the baby) seems to have the sort of gumption which can prevail against the various clever, well-organised parties seeking to capture Lyra. If I were to set his actions down here they wouldn’t, perhaps, seem so heroic – but he is a true hero who simply keeps going until the job is done.

This is an easier read than the previous trilogy, despite the length (it is a meaty 546 pages in hardback). The threads carry the reader clearly through the story. I wasn’t quite convinced by the motivation of Gerard Bonneville, but he does make a splendid and hideous villain. Matters which never were really explained in the later trilogy are, finally, set up in this one.

Suffice it to say that I have read deep into the night, night after night, to know how this story unfolds and then resolves. It is a tale as full of matter as one of Mrs Polstead’s mouth-watering pies.

This would make a special gift for Christmas.

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