Has it really been 17 years since the publication of “The Amber Spyglass,” the final volume of Philip Pullman’s magnificent “His Dark Materials” trilogy?
What might seem an insuperable gap between then and now disappears in a blink as one reads the enthralling, enchanting first installment in “The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage,” a prequel to that earlier series.
As millions of readers of all ages know, “His Dark Materials” skipped between alternate versions of our own world as it recounted the adventures of Lyra Belacqua, a.k.a. Lyra Silvertongue, a girl of mysterious parentage who finds herself caught up in a cosmic war with metaphysical elements drawn from Milton, Blake, quantum physics and Nordic mythology. “The Book of Dust” maintains a tighter focus, with both characters and chronology. The protagonist, a boy named Malcolm Polstead, lives in Oxford, where his parents own a Thames-side pub called the Trout. Malcolm spends much of his free time messing about in his beloved canoe, La Belle Sauvage. “If he’d been the sort of boy who acquired a nickname,” Pullman writes, “he would no doubt have been known as the Professor, but he wasn’t that sort of boy. He was liked when noticed, but not noticed much, and that did him no harm, either.”
As with “His Dark Materials,” Malcolm’s world is one in which every person is attached to a daemon, an animal counterpart who accompanies its human partner everywhere. Until its human reaches puberty, a daemon can manifest as any creature, mythological or otherwise. These shifting personae reflect a person’s psychological and emotional states, and the daemon’s ultimate, adult appearance signifies one’s deepest, underlying self — one’s soul, perhaps.
Intrigued by a conversation with three strange gentlemen who visit the Trout one winter night, Malcolm is drawn into a plot that involves an infant foundling being cared for by nuns at a nearby priory. The mystery deepens when he comes across a message hidden inside a brass acorn and subsequently befriends Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar. Hannah reveals that she belongs to a clandestine government agency trying to infiltrate and defeat the Magisterium, a fascist religious organization (with obvious parallels to both current political regimes and the Catholic Inquisition). As another spy tells her, “This is a deep and uncomfortable paradox, which will not have escaped you: we can only defend democracy by being undemocratic.” The sly references to Oxford’s historical connection to British espionage enhance the novel’s resonance with our own world. Indeed, the first half of “The Book of Dust” reads like a thriller.
The story becomes darker, deeper and even more engrossing when a cataclysmic flood overtakes Southern England. Warned of its coming, Malcolm rescues the baby given refuge by the nuns. With Alice, a surly teenager who also works at the Trout, he embarks upon a hair-raising journey across an inundated landscape as the three young people and their respective daemons are pursued by one of the most frightening villains in contemporary literature: a charismatic sexual predator whose vicious daemon may give you nightmares.
Much of the children’s escape plays out against a dreamy nighttime world, moonlit and with passages of astonishing beauty and terror. Philip Pullman’s lifelong love of “The Odyssey” also comes into play, as Malcolm proves himself a formidable trickster, as well as the baby’s fearless and tender guardian.
“The Book of Dust” feels more earthbound — in the best way — than the earlier trilogy. The cosmic clockwork of “His Dark Materials,” with its multiverses and metaphysics, becomes grounded in this new novel. Familiar characters and themes recur, with the former attempting to understand the secret of a divinatory device called the alethiometer and its relationship to quantum physics and Dust, the cosmic particles that play a crucial role in “His Dark Materials.” This is an alternate world where a clever boy reads both Stephen Hawking and Agatha Christie, and the first stirrings of sexual desire are as puzzling to him as the uncertainty principle.
But there is plenty of magic here, too, not just daemons and startling prophecies but witches and specters, forays into Faerie, and Malcolm’s eerie, migraine-like visions of the aurora borealis. Too few things in our own world are worth a 17-year-wait: “The Book of Dust” is one of them.
Elizabeth Hand’s most recent book is “Fire: Essays and Short Fiction.”
By Philip Pullman
Knopf. 464 pp. $22.99