His Dark Materials is my favorite book series, and I’d been eagerly anticipating the release of The Book of Dust for at least a decade, from its first inception a set of short stories and anecdotes about the world of HDM to its current incarnation as full-length novels. I was thrilled when Pullman made it a trilogy, the first of which, La Belle Sauvage, is set when Lyra is a baby. I really enjoyed the first half of the book, which involves the son of an innkeeper named Malcolm Polstead, around age 11, who gets caught up in the efforts to protect baby Lyra from those who wish her harm. At this point, Lyra is being kept in a priory by a group of nuns, and she hasn’t made it to Jordan College yet. Malcolm occasionally helps to watch her while also becoming acquainted and eventually studying with Hannah Relf (Dame Hannah from the original), who is part of a secret society that is covertly working against the Magisterium.
It’s very cool to see Hannah as a fully-fledged character here, ten years before Lyra meets her and eventually comes under her tutelage. She’s smart and interesting and fills the role that Mary Malone filled in the first trilogy. Other characters from the first books, like Coram van Texel (Farder Coram), make an appearance in this prequel as well. And the first half of the book is really interesting, told from the familiar perspective of a boy on the cusp of puberty getting involved in things way over his head. Then a huge flood hits Oxford, and the entire city is underwater for several days. Malcolm, along with his friend Alice, must rescue Lyra from the priory and keep her safe from all the people who want her for their own ends, eventually (they hope) getting her into the care of her father, Lord Asriel.
This second part of the book, which follows Malcolm and Alice and Lyra in Malcolm’s boat, La Belle Sauvage, is so markedly different from the first half that it almost feels like a different book entirely, and not in a good way. They encounter all sorts of magical creatures that feel out of place in Pullman’s previously well-regulated fantasy world, as if he threw all his carefully constructed rules out the window and just decided to throw everything he could think of back in, making it a mish mash of fantasy tropes that don’t seem to have a point. There are fairies, a city of people who may or may not be dead but are certainly ensorcelled in some way, a monster-type creature that feels like a sort of Old God, and a main villain who just can’t seem to stay dead, popping up unbelievably at various points on the children’s journey to twirl his moustache evilly and (spoiler alert) rape children.
This last part is what really threw me off the story for good. The original trilogy was blessedly free of sexual violence, but the threat of sexual violence pervades this entire book, finally culminating in Malcolm witnessing it happening in person. I don’t really get the point of it. The villain is interesting in some ways – his evilness causes a kind of schism between himself and his daemon, a really fascinating idea that isn’t explored well enough – but ultimately he’s there just to hunt baby Lyra and, I suppose, show that bad people do bad things? I’m not really sure. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I finished the book feeling like I had read some bad fanfiction instead of a loving addition to a set of stories I cherish.