A Muted Prequel: Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust

Twenty-two years after the publication of his extraordinary novel The Golden Compass, a passport into an intoxicating universe of infinite marvels, Philip Pullman has returned to the parallel world he created with the first installment in a new trilogy.

La Belle Sauvage opens a decade or so prior to the events of The Golden Compass. Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, the son of an innkeeper, is an inquisitive, intelligent, and resourceful boy who spends his time helping out his parents, picking fights with Alice Polstrow, a cranky teenage girl who works at the inn, and loitering about at the Priory of Godstow, where the tolerant and kindly nuns give him free rein. His quiet life is abruptly upended by a series of events, beginning with his discovery of a mysterious message from Oakley Street, a secret society working in opposition to the increasingly authoritarian Church, which is tightening its hold on the government.

He is aided in his investigations by Dr. Hannah Relf, a Scholar studying the mysterious alethiometer, who recruits Malcolm as a sort of spy under the guise of loaning him books (charmingly, Agatha Christie and A Brief History of Time). When the infant Lyra comes into the care of the nuns, Malcolm is enchanted and dark forces convene in the form of the Consistorial Court of Discipline, a sinister and secretive arm of the Church, and the terrifying Gerard Bonneville, a disgraced experimental theologian with a sinister hyena daemon, a penchant for violence, and a disconcerting interest in Lyra. A devastating flood sweeps through Malcolm’s little world, and he, Alice, and Lyra escape in his beloved canoe, La Belle Sauvage, determined to carry Lyra to safety—and with Bonneville just behind them.

Bonneville is in many ways the most real-world villain of Pullman’s universe; he’s the sort of monster you can find anywhere, unlike the splendidly villainous and glamorous Mrs. Coulter, say, or the unhinged and fanatical aspiring child-murderer Father Gomez, or, you know, the power-hungry literal angel pretending to be God. His motivations for pursuing Malcolm and Alice are never quite made clear; at one point it’s suggested that he hopes to use the infant Lyra for leverage to restore his ruined career; Malcolm and Alice speculate variously that he wants revenge on Mrs. Coulter, whose testimony sent him to prison after (it’s heavily implied that) he sexually assaulted her, or that he’s just crazy; Bonneville himself says both that he wants to roast and eat the baby and that his pursuit is actually of Alice. Absent a larger arc within Pullman’s multifaceted universe—in His Dark Materials, the Church is determined to murder Lyra to avoid her fulfillment of a witch’s prophecy that she will bring about the fall of mankind—Bonneville’s obsession with the children becomes something both darker and more pedestrian than the dangers Will and Lyra face in the original trilogy. He is clearly established as a sexual predator—Dr. Relf discusses this with her Oakley Street co-conspirators, Malcolm’s father warns him of Bonneville’s reputation for assaulting women (though how Malcolm’s father comes by this knowledge is unclear), and Bonneville’s hunt of Alice, Malcolm, and Lyra culminates in a horrific and wildly unnecessary assault on Alice, with whom he’s initiated a semi-consensual sexual relationship much earlier in the book. (I spent a lot more time than I would have preferred thinking about consent negotiation among daemons.)

Our own world, of course, is full of men like Bonneville. It was particularly difficult to read Pullman’s detailed descriptions of Bonneville’s trespasses against various female characters’ bodily autonomy in light of the snowballing recent accounts of women coming forward about their experiences of sexual assault in a broad spectrum of industries, but I have always been frustrated with writers’ deployment of sexualized violence as a plot mechanism or way to demonstrate a particular character’s nefariousness. Coming from Pullman, that level of authorial laziness feels like a slap in the face.

It does not help that the female characters of La Belle Sauvage are feeble caricatures in comparison to the brilliantly rendered and immensely complex women of His Dark Materials. Mrs. Coulter (who appears in La Belle Sauvage in an uninspired cameo) is one of the greatest villains in the history of English literature; Lyra is stubborn, brave, impulsive, loyal, and intensely lovable; Dr. Mary Malone gets her own rich backstory and scholarly motivations; even the minor female characters, such as the various witches concerned with Lyra’s doings, or the Gyptian matriarch Ma Costa, are vivid creations who seem to carry with them their own worlds and interests and lives. Pullman’s series prior to His Dark Materials gave us the marvelously fierce detective-bookkeeper-unapologetic single mother-socialist Sally Lockhart.

In contrast, in La Belle Sauvage we get Alice, whose chief characteristic is obstreperousness, who accuses Malcolm at the beginning of their journey of bringing her along solely to change Lyra’s diapers and then spends the bulk of their flight doing exactly that (Malcolm, otherwise clever in the face of new challenges, never learns how), and whose only stated ambition is to be pretty. Malcolm’s mother bosses him around and cooks a lot of potatoes. Dr. Relf is thoughtful and clever and well-read, but her story isn’t given the same weight as Dr. Malone’s. (Dr. Relf takes charge of Lyra’s education in the final scene of The Amber Spyglass; we can hope she plays a more compelling role in the forthcoming Belle Sauvage sequel, which Pullman has said will focus on Lyra at age 20.) Lyra is a baby; with all due respect to parents, infants are not particularly compelling protagonists.

It’s Malcolm, not Alice, who undertakes the derring-do throughout their journey, who develops his innate competence into pragmatic courage, who gets the hero’s arc, whose burgeoning sexuality is given Alice as its eventual focus (rather disturbingly, only after she has described her first sexual encounter with Bonneville). Alice gets assaulted, repeatedly—by the inn’s patrons, by Bonneville, and, it’s implied, as a child—and takes care of the kid.

I am resigned to these tired and gendered clichés in the hands of lesser authors, but Philip Pullman is infinitely more capable, and his failures to navigate the dynamics he sets up left me wishing he’d never thought up Bonneville at all. Likewise, the relative diversity of the earlier trilogy is almost entirely absent: Malcolm’s world is an unnervingly white one, an erasure that would be forgivable (for me, anyway, though understandably not for everyone) twenty years ago but is unthinkable now, particularly in a world where the people who suffer the most at the hands of the real-life authoritarian and evangelical regimes Pullman invokes are unfailingly migrants and people of color, women and trans women of color in particular.

It is wholly unfair to take umbrage with an author for failing to write the book one would have preferred to read. The American election of 2016 is not Phillip Pullman’s fault, nor is the endemic and systematic abuse of women by powerful men, nor is structural racism. But Pullman has expressly stated, in interview after interview, that he is concerned with religious absolutism, with the joys of physical pleasure and affirming human sexuality, and with the creeping tide of fascism. All throughout His Dark Materials are reminders of the importance of individual rebellion in the face of crushing authority, of the value of the body and of desire, of the power of a few brave and persistent individuals to effect far-reaching and meaningful change. And, too, of the beauty and mystery of the universe: one of Pullman’s central theses is the idea that dark matter in Will’s world and Dust in Lyra’s comprise the consciousness of matter itself. Pullman’s multiverse is a many-splendored thing, gleaming with intelligence and humor and beauty, drawing on what sometimes feels like the entire canon of Western literature, and for me its most enduring message is one of hope and joy and courage in the face of an authority that is boundlessly powerful and determined to eradicate all three of those principles in its subjects at all costs.

Which, you know, feels pretty relevant these days. It’s a disappointment that the grandly realized ambitions of His Dark Materials feel muted in La Belle Sauvage; for me, the book holds little of the wonder and even less of the wise and well-seasoned hope of its predecessors. The pleasures of its narrative are multiple, especially in the later section as Alice and Malcolm traverse an Odyssey-esque dreamscape of enchanted islands and mythical creatures, and Pullman never wrote a bad sentence in his life. Farder Coram’s appearances are like visits from an old friend (and Sophonax!!!!! Who doesn’t want a beautiful autumn-colored cat?). Pullman’s excursions into the peculiar physics of Malcolm and Lyra’s world are intriguing (although a nitpicky reviewer with a penchant for cosmology might wonder how exactly Stephen Hawking wound up there).

But I can’t help longing for the Belle Sauvage that could have been, the work of a writer of infinite wisdom and boundless ability confronting the horrorshow of the twenty-first century with his characteristic grace and wit, leaving us with—at the risk of sounding dramatic—a work of art demanding we keep hope alive, that we refuse, no matter how hard it gets, to give in to despair. I have reread His Dark Materials countless times over the years to remind me that another world is possible, and it’s to those books, not this one, that I’ll return when I need to be reminded again.

And yet: I still can’t wait for the sequel. Maybe hope burns eternal after all.

The Book of Dust is available from Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Sarah McCarry is the author of three novels: All Our Pretty Songs, a Tiptree Award honoree; the Norton award-nominated Dirty Wings; and the Lambda award-nominated About A Girl.

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