The Book of Dust (La Belle Sauvage: Volume 1) ★★★☆☆
Genre(s) | Fantasy, Young Adult
Goodreads Rating | 4.34
Humpo Show Rating | 3.4
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua. He is thrust into the position of protector for Lyra following a biblical flood. Accompanied by headstrong Alice, they both do their best to protect her from the all-powerful Magesterium- who see her as dangerous and important- to navigate the flood and deliver Lyra to her father in London.
Pullman ascended to the pinnacle of storytelling and imagination in his masterpiece of literature, His Dark Materials. He returns, some years later, with a prequel to that series of books that is undoubtedly one of the best in the Young Adult and Fantasy genres respectively. This prequel details the events when Lyra was just a baby, and the beginning of her fascinating life. It is very clear to see that The Book of Dust is aimed to be the first part of a new trilogy, but despite that knowledge the story should be more engaging to stand on its own. Although Pullman has described this as an equal to His Dark Materials, this is undoubtedly a prequel, solely because of the time-frame. The problem with writing a prequel is that we know where they will end up, therefore the ending lacks the punch it would have gotten if it was published first. The urgency in reaching Lord Asriel lacked urgency because of the extremely long build up, coupled with the lack of a clear sense of time.
The Book of Dust, especially Part One of the book, is the definition of a slow-burner. It consists of Malcolm visiting and running errands for the nuns that live in the priory across the river, working in his parent’s pub The Trout Inn where he talks and listens to the scholars of Oxford, and spying and reading books with Dr Hannah Relf. This is probably one of the slowest of burners that you will read!
There were some darker elements in this addition, almost all of them concern Bonneville’s character. The villain of this novel has a dæmon which is a ghastly-looking hyena; he’s also been in prison for a sexual offence, and he is involved in a truly awful moment in Book of Dust that comes with a trigger warning. Pullman’s villain is a high point in his newest addition to His Dark Materials canon. His laugh set me on edge and the tension grew with every mention of his laugh, especially during Part Two where he seemed to linger just over the shoulders of Malcolm, Alice and Lyra. Pullman expertly depicted him as a dangerous, cruel and abominable man, through his treatment of his dæmon, his relentlessness in pursuing Lyra, and especially the scene that happens in the chapter The Mausoleum typifies his horrible character.
Part Two is a vast improvement on Part One, there is more of the Pullman-esque references to religious mythology and big ideas, not on the same scale as before, but it helps to shape the story into something bigger than just a plain old story of rescue and deliverance. Bonneville’s character is a menace that continues to inspire fear in both Malcolm and Alice, who valiantly take care of Lyra against the odds of Bonneville and the might of the Magesterium. Malcolm shows courage, intuition and love, the qualities that leading character requires.
The Book of Dust is a slow-burner and my best guess is that it is meant to be an extremely detailed introduction to Malcolm and Alice, rather than to provide us with an exhilarating read. It will unfortunately suffer in comparison to Pullman’s previous masterpiece of literature, but I am hopeful that this story is to set up Volume 2 as something that will have plenty of edge of the seat action. Pullman’s writing is a joy to behold, and to delve into his world again is something I will never tire of doing.
The Humpo Show | Richard