Erica’s Pick of the Week: The Book of Dust, Book One: La Belle Sauvage

Seventeen years. SEVENTEEN YEARS.

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That’s how long I’ve been waiting for The Book of Dust, Book One: La Belle Sauvage, the newest book by Philip Pullman. La Belle Sauvage is set in the same world as Pullman’s acclaimed fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. That series followed the adventures of Lyra Belaqua, a brave, impulsive girl from an alternate-world version of Oxford, England and her daemon Pantalaimon, a shapeshifting animal connected to Lyra’s soul.  In the books, Lyra and Pan travel across Europe and to parallel worlds, searching for the truth about a mysterious substance called Dust.

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His Dark Materials is one of my all-time favorite series, with gorgeous writing, worldbuilding to rival Harry Potter, vivid secondary characters, enthralling action, and genuine emotion. The Book of Dust, however, is neither a prequel nor a sequel — it’s a companion, set before, during, and after the original series.

News like this can make a fangirl worry. What if this new story contained the literary equivalent of Jar Jar Binks? What if it was dull as ditchwater? What if it was SO BAD that it ruined the original series by association?

I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded. La Belle Sauvage was worth the (very, very, VERY long) wait. Set ten years before the first book in the original series — it follows Malcolm Polstead, the son of innkeepers, who spends his days scrubbing pots, annoying Alice the kitchen girl, and tending to his canoe, La Belle Sauvage. When the infant Lyra is entrusted to the local priory, Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, realizes she’s in danger from any number of factions. Shortly after Lyra’s arrival, a flood of near-biblical proportions hits, and Malcolm and a reluctant Alice realize the only way to save the baby is to transport her to Oxford via canoe, and claim academic sanctuary at Jordan College.

Pursued by both friends and foes, Malcolm, Alice, Lyra and their daemons travel through strange worlds and harrowing adventures; at times the story takes on the feel of a fairy tale. And while it certainly sheds new light on Lyra and her history, Malcolm is definitely the star here — he’s inquisitive and resourceful, but not infallible. I’d cheerfully spend several more books in his world. Like His Dark MaterialsLa Belle Sauvage is technically a middle-grade fantasy, but it will appeal to anyone who likes complex, thoughtful, well-written fantasy.

Best of all, La Belle Sauvage can be read as a standalone. Fans of the original series will certainly enjoy finding all the connections to His Dark Materials, but Malcolm’s journey is rich, compelling, and imaginative enough to hook any fantasy reader. It’s the perfect choice for any fantasy-loving readers on your holiday list…including you.

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