His Dark Materials was a groundbreaking trilogy of fantasy novels. They were breathtaking in their scope and originality; the concept of a person having the personification of their soul in the form of an animal called their daemon was both simple and a stroke of genius. It was also a wonderful writing device; characters could literally talk to themselves.
For a long time, Pullman hinted that he was writing a second trilogy, The Book of Dust, following on from His Dark Materials. Finally, in 2017, the first part of that trilogy was published, La Belle Sauvage.
This book, unlike the other two books in this new trilogy, is a prequel to His Dark Materials, but unlike so many other prequels, this isn’t an origins story. This is an intense adventure in its own right.
Malcolm Polstead, the main character here, is a plain and non-heroic boy, not the usual adventurous type of boy found at the heart of a fantasy story, and this book is all the better for that. Malcolm’s ordinariness draws the reader into this story of cloak-and-dagger spying and sinister danger against the backdrop of the all-powerful Magisterium. Malcolm lives in an inn, on the bank of an Oxford river, run by his parents. On the opposite bank is a convent of nuns, several of the elderly nuns Malcolm has befriended.
Three characters from His Dark Materials trilogy make an appearance here. Lord Asriel has a small but important part to play in the plot, Mrs Coulter makes a sinister cameo appearance, but it is Lyra who is an important part of the story, even though she is just a newborn baby here. The story begins with her left in the care of the nuns.
What lifts this novel up from a well written, sinister spy adventure is the horrible event at the centre of this story. A terrible storm hits the country and overnight the whole of Southern England is flooded. What were once cities and towns and green countryside are suddenly turned into a desolate, dark sea of dank water. Suddenly the only land is at the top of hills or tall buildings. Into this dangerous world Malcolm and Lyra, accompanied by Alice, the inn’s young serving maid, must race across this now alien land in Malcolm’s small boat in an attempt to keep Lyra safe.
Pullman’s writing is always of a high quality, he doesn’t turn in lazy or shallow characterisation because this is a “children’s novel”. The first part of this novel crackles with the sinister and dark tones of a spy thriller, but it is the second part of the novel where his writing shines. He paints the flooded landscape as an alien and dangerous world, the familiar gone as it is drowned under an unforgiving sea of water, in which the three characters have to survive.
This book was certainly worth the wait. Pullman has lost none of his skill as a storyteller but neither has he run out of ideas and stories to tell in his unique universe. So often with sequels, especially after such original stories as His Dark Materials trilogy, there can be the law of diminishing returns, the author having used up all their ideas in the first book/books, not so here. The quality of La Belle Sauvage bodes well for the rest of the trilogy, and I am so glad to report that.