The Book of Dust, by Philip Pullman Young Adults
Volume One, La Belle Sauvage
Philip Pullman is justly recognised as one of the great contemporary Fantasy writers for children of all ages. He made his considerable reputation many years ago with ‘His Dark Materials’, adventures in a dark, parallel world still recognisable as ours but with many differences; now, he reintroduces us to that world in a Prequel, the first adventure in a trilogy, once again with Lyra and her daemon and alter ego Pantalaimon as two of the protagonists – baby Lyra, for she is six months old, and is being hidden by kindly nuns just outside the university city of Oxford. Someone wants to kill her.
And others will protect her with their very lives, for it has been foretold that Lyra’s existence is of vital importance to the World Order – which is suffering under repressive religious rulers who enforce their beliefs with unholy enthusiasm. (Sound familiar?) Those who believe in Lyra see her as their talisman, their beacon of hope in their efforts to overthrow the current regime. A group of powerful men meet at The Trout, the local tavern which has a view of the convent, to consolidate plans for Lyra’s protection. They are served by Malcolm, the 11 year old son of the proprietor, and he can tell from the many questions they ask that they are not just taking a casual interest – which worries him: what can these strangers want with the nuns? Why are they asking questions about a baby?
The situation does not become any clearer when another stranger arrives and asks Malcolm to take him to the convent ‘to see his little daughter’ and, despite Malcolm’s initial misgivings he ferries him across the fast-moving river in his beloved canoe ‘La Belle Sauvage’ to the convent so that he may meet with his baby, Malcolm all the while hoping that he has not made a fatal mistake: surely this man who calls himself Lord Azriel would not harm Malcolm’s beloved Lyra – surely he is her real father? And Malcolm is so relieved to find that his worries are groundless that he lends Lord Azriel his canoe to journey down the river unobserved by those who were following him – which was a wise move, for ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is returned in sparkling, almost new condition – how great is that!!
And thank heaven for the canoe’s new seaworthiness, for the worst rains in years pour from the skies, flooding everything; nobody can remember worse weather or higher, more destructive floodwaters; people are starting to fear for their lives – and Malcolm fears for Lyra, especially as a man called Bonneville has turned up at the tavern stating that he is the child’s father and he wants to claim his daughter from the convent - Malcolm must rescue her and try to take her to her real father in London – if they can ever find their way on the great inland sea that the Thames has become. His companion on the nightmare journey is Alice the kitchen maid, perpetually grumpy but devoted, as he is, to Lyra and her safety.Which is endangered every day as they are pursued relentlessly by Bonneville and others who would do them harm – and I have to say that I have never read anything more suspenseful than Malcolm and Alice’s action-packed trip through a drowned landscape, full of drowned people and animals. They endure much before they reach London in their faithful little craft, and so did I (reading into the small hours makes Julia really crabby the next day!) but this is writing of the highest quality, the kind that makes us question our own world order, and what we are prepared to do about it. SIX STARS.