Biblical floods, fairy queens, and ominous religious control dominate Pullman’s new tale, ensuring another gripping journey into the alternative universe first brought to life in His Dark Materials. Cameos from characters that dominated His Dark Materials give a familiar jolt of delight to fans of Pullman’s work, here we get an insight into earlier days in the lives of Farder Coram, Lord Asriel, and Mrs Coulter. Pullman’s superb characterisation brings these characters warmly to life: Coram is transformed from the kindly, aged voice of reason, into an energetic fighter; Asriel becomes tender and warm as he holds baby Lyra in the grounds of a priory; Mrs Coulter gives familiar chills as her and her golden monkey daemon attempt to find their daughter.
But what gives the reader the most pleasure is the sheer humanity of the characters Pullman presents. The book opens by introducing us to the young protagonist, Malcom, a potboy at his parent’s inn in Godstow. The same age as Lyra at the beginning of Northern Lights, yet again Pullman does a remarkable job of creating a compelling, complex character of an 11-year old child. Malcom is a delight, intelligent, charismatic, and owner of the canoe which gives the book its name.
His comfy life of country inns and priories comes abruptly to an end as he observes a failed dead drop. Soon we see the darker side of life in Pullman’s universe, as an increasingly religious state attempts to dominate all aspects of life. Sadly, some scenes are all too familiar; teachers drowning in mind-numbing bureaucracy, huge societal divisions, natural disasters. Here, Pullman brings the political into children’s fiction, demonstrating the dangers of state surveillance with the increasingly sinister ‘League of St. Alexander’ – a church funded organisation with Mrs Coulter at its head that encourages schoolchildren to spy on their parents, friends and family. It is in this setting that Malcom is drawn into the darker side of Pullman’s England, as he discovers the secret organisation of Oakley Street, designed to subvert church control. Through the kindly guidance of Dr. Hannah Relf, Malcom begins to supply his own intelligence to Oakley Street, though this dangerous mission is beautifully subverted by Dr. Relf’s teaching of Malcom, as she becomes his own personal library.
The action kicks off as a flood of biblical proportions engulfs Oxford, as per the prediction of Farder Coram. And so, almost in parallel to Northern Lights, begins a mission – seemingly in a modern-day Noah’s Ark – to save Lyra from her mother and deliver her safely to Lord Asriel and the protection of scholarly sanctuary at Jordan College, Oxford. Fans of His Dark Materials often cite Mrs Coulter as one of the most sinister of villains, but another creation of Pullman’s presents possible alternatives. Following Malcom and Alice as they battle through a sodden south of England is Gerard Bonneville – a deranged man and escaped sex offender intent on kidnapping Lyra. His daemon is a laughing hyena. Here, Pullman’s atmospheric writing comes into its own. Scene after scene we are presented with confused darkness, punctuated by the cackling of a badly injured laughing hyena. It is horror at its most advanced level, a seeming ghost that Malcom cannot escape.
But despite such fear, there are also moments of magic and beautiful tenderness. Alice and Malcom’s growing friendship as they travel together in La Belle Sauvage is as natural as can be, as is the gentle description of Malcom’s growing feelings towards her. Other such moments come as Pullman merges an England that is somewhat recognisable with fairy tale. The travelling children meet gods of rivers – a personified tributary of Old Father Thames, in one of the most bizarre yet compelling scenes of the book. Set against the scenery of a flood of massive proportions, such interactions do not feel out of place, with Pullman’s seemingly limitless talent softly interweaving reality and daily life with myth and legend, creating an almost dreamlike feeling to parts of the novel.
Throughout the book, hints of familiarity are present to those well-read in His Dark Materials. Yet we also are privy to subtle clues about the wider scope of Pullman’s universe; we can see the growing fascination of the church with Dust, and there are even hints at the witches’ prophecy that comes to define Lyra’s adventures 10 years later.
La Belle Sauvage is a testament to Pullman’s skill as a writer and world-builder, and does certainly not disappoint. I, for one, eagerly await the next two instalments of The Book of Dust.