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Dust to Dust
Created by ggrihn on 12/9/2017 5:01:17 PM

The Book of Dust, Volume One: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

Reviewed by Gregory G.H. Rihn, Steampunk Chronicle Literary Editor

image Philip Pullman returns to the world of The Golden Compass with this prequel. La Belle Sauvage begins shortly after the birth of Lyra Bellaqua. It is a time of ferment in the sciences: methodical studies are being made of the capabilities and properties of alethiometers, discoveries are being made about the nature of the particles known as Dust, and there are hints about the existence of Mrs. Coulter’s terrible experiments. Politics are in flux, as the Church and its inquisitorial institutions tightens its grip on Britain. The spiritual world is disturbed, also. The gyptians, the witches, and others in touch with the spirits of earth and water prophecy that great upheaval and danger is coming.

At the initially still center of all this is Malcom Polstead, a quiet but observant and intelligent English boy. His family runs “The Trout,” an inn on the banks of the Thames near Oxford. Across the river is the Priory of St. Rosamund, inhabited by kind and gentle nuns, whom Malcom is fond of and helps out from time to time.

A mysterious meeting at The Trout results in the infant Lyra being fostered at the Priory, due to having been abandoned by Mrs. Coulter, and courts having determined Lord Asriel to be an unfit parent. Malcom, who is charmed by the little girl, gets caught up in the intrigues swirling around her, involving the Magisterium and its agents, a covert resistance group known only as “Oakley Street,” and a disturbing man who claims to be Lyra’s true father. Malcom foils an attempted kidnapping, which occurs during a torrential storm, that is the beginning of the foretold cataclysmic flooding.

Accompanied by Alice, a girl who also works for the inn and for the nunnery, Malcom attempts to take Lyra to sanctuary in Oxford, but their boat, La Belle Sauvage, is swept onward. After that, their only choice is to try to ride the flood waters down to London, to seek safety with Lord Asriel.

While its own story, this latter part of the book partakes of elements from other voyages: The Odyssey, Heart of Darkness, Huckleberry Finn. Malcom, Alice and Lyra evade pursuers, while encountering other refugees, fairies, river spirits, and taking a detour through what may be the Underworld.

Chiefly, this book lays background for the situation that exists at the beginning of The Golden Compass, exposes some of the underpinnings of the world, and gives us some hints as to why Lyra is special. I found it interesting in that regard, if not thrilling. The forthcoming second book, The Secret Commonwealth, reputed picks up with Lyra at age twenty, thus bookending the His Dark Materials trilogy. I will be curious to see where it takes us.

The Book of Dust, Volume One

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