La Belle Sauvage [The Book of Dust, Volume One], by Philip Pullman
The Belle Sauvage in the book’s title is a canoe, owned by the hero [a designation which can be given without reservation, which the book will reveal], Malcolm Polstead; interestingly, I don’t remember reading how the canoe acquired that name: perhaps this will be revealed in the next instalment of the trilogy, for this book is the first of three which form a prequel to the highly successful His Dark Materials trilogy [HDM] by the same author. They are ostensibly children’s books, but many adults [of which I am not ashamed to admit I am one] have also read & enjoyed them: I like to think that they broadened my daughters’ minds, for they are both avid readers. Philip Pullman is acknowledged to be an important modern critical thinker, and his books have won awards too numerous to mention, including the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for The Amber Spyglass, the third in HDM: the first time that award has been given to a children’s book; the trilogy has also been translated to the big screen—debatably successfully—and to television, by the BBC, much more accurately and, consequently, successfully.
Given that, as previously stated, this is a prequel, some of the characters & locations will be known to those familiar with the alternate world which Pullman has created. The timeframe is now, approximately, and the setting initially Britain; specifically Oxford & its environs; but the technology is slightly different; or, at least, its terminology is: there are Zeppelins for long-distance air travel, but also gyrocopters, and there does appear to be internal combustion available for small vehicles, but electrical power is referred to as anbaric. Not Steampunk specifically, but different enough to be noticeable: if you accept the concept of parallel or adjacent universes, this one is only one or two steps removed. The main protagonist in HDM, a young girl named Lyra, is here introduced to us as a baby, who is entrusted to the care of nuns at a nearby priory, Godstow, because she is in need of special protection: primarily from the ruling religious authorities, which exert a near-total control over the country’s moral development. This is a relatively recent manifestation, but the observance of Christianity is now being inexorably enforced; one of the aspirations of the authorities in this mission is the suppression of research into any areas of science which might contradict Christian dogma.
Lyra’s parents are either unable, or unwilling to participate in her upbringing, but they are both aware of her potential to upset what is regarded by the authorities as the natural order; there is no risk of plot spoilers for new readers of HDM, because this parentage is revealed quite early in the trilogy. Her father is Lord Asriel, a rich explorer who is convinced that there is some unifying force which can explain the functioning of the universe, and he is relentlessly searching for it: a quest which he knows cannot include a baby, however much he might like to spend time with her. Lyra’s mother, however, has no maternal instincts, but she has been made aware of Lyra’s potential, so she sets out to reclaim the child. Mrs Coulter’s husband was killed by Lord Asriel, but the circumstances were such that the latter was not held responsible for the death, so he is free to pursue his quest.
Eleven-year-old Malcolm, the son of the proprietors of The Trout pub in Port Meadow, a village three miles outside Oxford, opposite the priory by the Thames, helps out at the priory, as well as working for his parents. He learns about the arrival of Lyra, and is instantly smitten: this might seem strange for a young boy, but he is obviously sensitive, as well as being very practical. One aspect of this world hitherto unmentioned is that all human beings have physical familiars of the opposite gender, referred to as dæmons: they serve many functions, but they always stay in close proximity to their owners, primarily because physical separation is painful. Children’s dæmons can take any form, albeit youthful, until they become fixed; after puberty, if I remember correctly. Malcolm’s dæmon, Asta, forms an instant rapport with Pantaleimon, Lyra’s dæmon, which is helpful for the later events. The action of the narrative is Malcolm’s escape from Port Meadow when a disastrous flood [whose proportions could be described, ironically, as biblical] destroys the priory and threatens Lyra’s safety, so he decides to head for London to find Lord Asriel, taking with him Alice, a fifteen-year-old girl who also works for Malcolm’s parents.
Luckily for the three passengers, La Belle Sauvage has been upgraded somewhat after Malcolm lent it to Lord Asriel for a few days, so it is better able to withstand the foul weather & onslaught of not only the flood on its journey, but also the trio’s pursuers. Although this first volume is 546 pages [and this makes a heavy hardback, not ideally conducive to bedtime reading!] it is very easy to read: not only because the prose is well written, but also because the font & line-spacing is just right for the page size. This hardback was published in 2017 by David Fickling Books, Oxford, in association with Penguin Books, London, ISBN 978-0-385-60441-3 [a trade paperback is also available, ISBN 978-0-857-56108-4]. Admittedly, this type of material might not be to everybody’s taste, but this is one of the few fantasy genres I can accommodate, so I will certainly be keeping my eyes open for the next book in this trilogy.