Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy, Steampunk
Series: The Book of Dust Volume One
(Spoilers for His Dark Materials are below).
Eleven year old Malcolm Polstead works and lives at his father's inn, The Trout, attends school, and enjoys paddling his canoe La Belle Sauvage, when he's not quietly observing the wide array of eclectic adults that enter his home. It's being at the center of all these adults, and a quiet observer, that soon lands him the task of becoming a spy. A dangerous proposition to be sure, but as a spy he soon discovers it's the six month old baby, Lyra Belacqua, who's being secretly taken care of by the Priory across the bridge, that's in even more danger.
It's been seventeen years since Lyra Belaqua was last committed to novel form. That's a long wait, as Pullman has been talking about publishing this Book of Dust for over a decade and a half. And of course, this book is a prequel, so if you're in the business of finding out what happens next, guess what? You're going to be waiting a few more years. Even being prequel, the wait was still well worth it.
Set ten years before the events of His Dark Materials, Pullman introduces readers to Malcolm, a curious and intelligent young boy who hopes to one day become a scholar. Pullman is an expert at character creation, and he particularly excels at writing children. So it should come as no surprise that Malcolm is another excellently well crafted narrator.
Working at The Trout with Malcolm is a sixteen year old girl named Alice. A little older, and a little more world-experienced, but still in need of some growing up herself, Alice is a source of contention for Malcolm. But as the story unfolds, she becomes another flushed out character with a lot more potential for growth. Malcolm's narrations are occasionally split by Dr. Relf, a Ph.D student at Oxford that's learning how to read the alethiometer. Dr. Relf's narrations often shed light on Dust, and the corruption of the current government in Brytain.
Compared to His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust seems to incorporate more aspects of realism, and less aspects of fantasy. There's not a whole lot of flying in gyrocopters or hot air balloons, the armored bears are not to be found, and even the human to daemon chatter is on the down low. The plot doesn't rely on a whole lot of magic, and there certainly isn't a doomsday type scenario that's being built up ... at least for now. I'm kind of relieved, because there really isn't any way Pullman is going to top the epic plot of His Dark Materials without making it contrived and all while lessening the characters that made that story so great to begin with.
That being said, The Book of Dust, is well written and well executed. Pullman seems to take the notion literally that this is a prequel about how Lyra ends up at Jordan College. While working to achieve this plot point, readers are opened to lots of new questions about Malcolm and Alice, many of which are left open by the novels end. If it's any consolation Malcolm does appear in the short story Lyra's Oxford, but as for Alice, who knows.
La Belle Sauvage is an excellent start to a new trilogy. It's great to see familiar faces, and be introduced to new characters that thus far are only enriching the world.