As the twentieth century wore to a close, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy offered a vastly superior alternative to the interminable adventures of Harry Potter.
The trilogy—and its continuation in Pullman’s latest book, La Belle Sauvage—takes inspiration from what is sometimes seen as an implication of quantum mechanics, that there are an infinite number of coexisting universes.
Pullman’s story unfolds in another universe where there was no Reformation. A single, authoritarian church, the Magisterium, presides over an alternative modernity of flying ships and electric cars. There are also beautiful flying witches and armoured talking bears.
La Belle Sauvage—the first in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust—is a prequel to His Dark Materials. Here we learn how the first trilogy’s wild irresistible heroine Lyra came to be the ward of an old Oxford college.
Whereas the earlier books ranged across their world and into other universes (including our own), this one is firmly located in Pullman’s brilliantly realized alternative Oxford.
Pullman lives in Oxford and his settings are real—the Trout Inn, Port Meadow, Jericho. Perhaps more strongly than in the earlier books, one senses a certain nostalgia for the older, slower, more deferential England of Pullman’s childhood and youth in the 1950s and 1960s.
But this is an England disrupted by a tremendous flood—a powerful and contemporary image of ecological catastrophe. Swept along on it is the little boat La Belle Sauvage. Its owner, 11-year-old Malcolm, is fleeing with teenage Alice and the baby Lyra, trying to save the child from sinister pursuers.
The flooded dream-like Thames landscape they escape through sometimes recalls one of J G Ballard’s best novels, The Drowned World. Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra experience some strange mythological encounters. Even at their journey’s end much is left unexplained, whetting our appetite for the next novel.