Philip Pullman is a creator of worlds. With words, he writes new realities into existence, constructs empathetic and entertaining characters, and ties it all together with a story line that seems to reach off the page and pull you in.
The world in the His Dark Materials series is set in an Oxford similar to ours, but different in one cataclysmic way: peoples’ souls live outside their bodies. I know, that sounds really weird, and semi-creepy. But these are not just ephemeral floating ghosts beside you; they take the shape of an animal that represents your essence: a dæmon. Until a child reaches puberty, their dæmon can change shape. Depending on mood or situation, the dæmon can be a ferocious lion, a timid mouse, a sneaky ermine; the possibilities are endless.
Central to this plot of these books is a girl, Lyra Belacqua, and her dæmon, Pantalaimon or Pan for short. These books were originally marketed for children, so the plot has enough adventure to keep a child’s mind occupied and engaged. But woven throughout the plot is a subplot detailing a controlling religion and a quasi-anarchical social structure that only the more advanced or adult readers understand.
His first novel was originally released as The Northern Lights in England 1995, and then later renamed The Golden Compass in 1996 when it hit the American market. The series then continues in The Subtle Knife, and ultimately concludes with The Amber Spyglass, published in 2000. There were two short novella spinoff stories after the third book, but since the original three, Pullman has mostly been quiet.
The universe in these books revolves the central topic of Dust (yes, that is with a capital “D”). This elusive particle was produced at the start of the world, when consciousness itself was created, and therefore, the particles themselves are sentient and can be communicated with. It is associated with original sin and settles on people who have hit puberty. The main point of strife in the original series is figuring out a way to communicate with Dust via a tool called the aletheiometer. This may sound convoluted, but Pullman lays everything out in methodical and purposeful ways throughout the series, so the reader never feels lost.
We, his adoring fans, thought he went dormant for good, and that Lyra would continue to live only between the pages of the three aforementioned tomes. But, in 2017, Pullman gifted us with something new.
The latest book in the acclaimed His Dark Materials series, The Book of Dust: Volume One La Belle Sauvage, is neither a prequel nor a sequel to the original three books, but instead, Pullman describes it as an “equal.”
The reader is taken back to the world Pullman painstakingly created for Lyra and her adventures. We meet Malcolm Polstead, the son of innkeepers, who is equal parts curious and brave. When he is not working at the inn, Malcolm favors taking rides in his paddle boat, La Belle Sauvage. Our new protagonist learns about the existence of a special baby girl, who grows up to be Lyra, who will one day go on important ventures to save the world as he knows it. When a flood strikes, Malcolm and a new character, Alice, paddle baby Lyra to safety, but along the way, encounter dangers that might befall two eleven year olds on a quest.
We are, however, gifted new glimpses of characters that have been pivotal to the storyline in general. Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel, Lyra’s mother and father, respectively, make cameo appearances to help ground the story and give readers perspective on events. We even get to see this world figuring out what Dust, or Rusakov Particles, does and how to communicate with it: a central point to the original plot.
Overall, Pullman’s latest installment fits seamlessly into the architecture of the original three books. Maybe there was a grand strategy behind his whole endeavor since 1995.