There must be something in the water in Oxford. It was once the literary stomping ground of writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia series) who formed part of a writer’s group called the Inklings and met regularly at the Eagle and Child pub to discuss their writing. And Lewis Carroll was inspired to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while living in Oxford. Now Philip Pullman, who resides in Oxford, can easily be added to this rich literary heritage as an author who creates such detailed, fantastical worlds.
Philip Pullman has just released The Book of Dust Volume One: La Belle Sauvage (what a mouthful). It is set in an Oxford that’s similar in appearance to the one we know, but is quite different. Pullman’s Oxford still has students, academics, colleges and pretty countryside but there are some magical differences. Every person has an animal companion called a daemon who is an extension of themselves and can talk, think and feel. Children’s daemons can change into all sorts of animals, reflecting their moods and needs, but once maturity hits the daemons settle into a particular animal form. In this alternative world there are also witches and other mythical creatures.
The Book of Dust is set in the time before the happenings of Pullman’s previous series His Dark Materials. Here we meet Lyra (the heroine of HDM) as a baby. It tells the story of eleven-year-old Malcolm who lives with his parents in an inn they run called The Trout, next to the river Thames. Like the river Thames which flows through Oxford all the way to London, The Book of Dust starts out at a nice meandering pace and then the flow of the story builds and builds until it becomes a roaring flood of action and danger. Malcolm is a kind, intelligent and very curious boy who is good at fixing things and loves to take his canoe La Belle Sauvage out on the river with his daemon Asta. There’s also a fifteen-year-old girl named Alice who helps out at the inn. She is moody, quick to anger and doesn’t get along with Malcolm but she will have a role to play in the adventure that is about to begin.
Across the river from The Trout is a priory full of nuns. Malcolm often visits them and helps with odd jobs. It’s here that he first meets a baby named Lyra who has been placed in the care of the nuns and it turns out is part of a prophecy which is of great importance to two warring factions. The two sides are a religiously conservative group named the CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline) which is an agency of the Church concerned with heresy and disbelief. On the other side is Oakley Street—a covert group of spies, politicians and academics who are fighting against the increasing harshness of the CCD. Malcolm gets drawn into this world as a result of his curiosity and his protective attachment to Lyra. I’ll leave the plot there as it’s quite complex to explain and I don’t want to give anything else away.
The Book of Dust is a children’s/YA novel but, though this book can be charming and innocent and times, there is much darkness. It has a lot of scientific, academic and religious concepts that a child would read at face value but someone older could delve into what Philip Pullman is really saying. It challenged, scared and delighted me as an adult reader. There is a villain in this book who gives Voldemort a run for his money. And the main protagonist Malcolm has a lot of Harry Potter-like qualities such as bravery, cleverness and an ability to stick his nose into adult’s business and get heavily involved in intrigue beyond his years.
I lived and worked in Oxford for a year back in 2009 and quickly fell under the spell of this town with its mix of students from all around the world, beautiful colleges with soaring spires, very old pubs, picturesque countryside and history everywhere you turn. I was lucky to meet Philip Pullman twice: once at a reading and book signing at a local school and the other at a talk about writing at one of the colleges. So I do have a soft spot for his books having lived in the place where they are set (not the magical version of Oxford – I wish!) and having met an author I admire who was friendly and interesting in real life. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!
Verdict: A fantastical masterpiece!
If you could choose any animal to be your daemon, which animal would you choose?
I would choose an owl as I have a bit of an owl collection/obsession going on.