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In 1995, Philip Pullman’s novel, Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) was released. The trilogy that followed has won numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal and Whitbread Book of the Year, as well as spawning a (rather disappointing) movie, and capturing the hearts and imagination of thousands of older children, teenagers, and adults alike. It took us to an alternate universe, where every human has their daemon – an animal companion that is an extension of your soul made flesh. Whilst a child, daemons are fluid shape-shifters, but once matured, they settle into the form that most truly reflects their human’s personality.
Now, 17 years after the release of the final book, Pullman invites us back into Lyra’s Oxford, and once more immerses us into her world. There is an aspect of an origin story here, with Lyra being a baby, on her journey to Jordan College. Our hero is Malcolm Polstead – an eleven-year-old who works in his parents’ inn. When he hears world that the local Priory of St Rosamund has taken into their charge a baby, his interest is immediately kindled. Meanwhile, the appearance of imposing and frightening outsiders within their small village is causing conflict and fear. Children are encouraged to spy on their parents, and it is difficult to know whom to trust.
Everything draws to a dramatic climax when a terrible flood strikes the village, and Malcolm is cast adrift, in the company of Alice, an older, outspoken girl with whom he has a strained relationship, and with little Lyra in their care. They flee across the country, facing a series of challenges: some natural, some supernatural, all the while being pursued by a charismatic scientist and his foul daemon.
With elements of fable, La Belle Sauvage is a spell-binding return to a world we can never forget, with a new cast of characters – and a foul villain – whilst many familiar faces, and hints at what the future will bring. Whilst one can read it independent of His Dark Materials, I believe the events will hold a greater gravitas if one has already enjoyed that series.
Reviewed by Angela Oliver
Book of Dust Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage
by Philip Pullman
Published by Penguin Random House