Friday, February 23, 2018

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

According to Goodreads, I read the "The Golden Compass" ELEVEN YEARS AGO. I actually cannot believe that since it, and the subsequent books in the His Dark Materials series, have basically stayed with me in a such a clear way that it seems like I just finished them. When I learned that Pullman was writing a prequel of sorts to the story of Lyra and her adventures, I was thrilled and made the rare decision to not only buy this book, but to buy the hardcover version at full price. I don't think I've done that in a very, very long time. Now that I've returned from my adventures in Pullman's unique world, I can safely say it was 100% worth it.

"The Book of Dust" brings us back to the world we first learned about in the His Dark Materials series.
Malcolm is a young man who lives and works at The Trout, a local watering hole. Together with his daemon (the outward manifestation of one's soul), Asta (who is still in the stages of changing animal forms before settling on one...something that happens to the young before they mature) he spends his days helping his parents run the pub, going to school, learning everything he can from books and the people who flow through The Trout, and taking meticulous care of his beloved canoe, La Belle Sauvage. He also spends time avoiding Alice, the prickly housekeeper that sometimes works at the pub. He is a precocious child with a voracious desire to learn all he can and when he isn't at home, he crosses a nearby bridge to spend time at the convent, helping in the kitchen and assisting their handyman.

Malcolm's life is quiet and he expects that as he grows older, despite his deep desire to be a scholar, he will assume the business for his parents and carry on in his uneventful life. One day a baby is taken in by the sisters at the convent and Malcolm is intrigued by her story. Rumors abound that she is the illegitimate daughter of prominent people and as strangers continue to pass through town, he becomes convinced that all is not what it seems when it comes the baby Lyra.

Meanwhile, the country is increasingly under the thrall of the CCD, a religious organization that seeks to control the lives of everyone and encourages and fosters mistrust throughout the region, calling on neighbors to spy on and report each other to authorities. Dr. Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar, has been put in charge of reading one of six rare tools called the alethiometer, a mysterious device that can divine the future and give information that has been deemed dangerous by the CCD. Scholars and scientists have had to form secret societies and clandestine methods of communication to discuss findings and theories about the substance of life. The religious authority is deeply against anything that contradicts what they teach and have been killing agents of these societies. Dr. Relf befriends Malcolm and he is unwittingly bringing him in to the resistance of the CCD.

After a devastating flood happens, a series of events leads Malcolm and Alice in charge of getting the baby Lyra safely to her father. They have only each other, scant supplies, and La Belle Sauvage to see them through the dangers of the flood and the threat of the CCD following them at every turn.

This is a triumphant return to the world we first entered in the His Dark Materials books. Malcolm is a well rounded and sympathetic character. As in the previous books, the world that Pullman creates is completely immersive, while resonating with our own society. The story moves along at a fast pace and there is so much packed in to the plot that makes the reading go quickly. I am always in awe of Pullman's ability to create situations, characters, and settings that mirror our own world, especially in terms of religion and control of the government. He does what good fantasy does: creates a world you can get lost in while also seeing your own experiences represented.

You don't have to read the His Dark Materials trilogy to enjoy this book, but it does help in understanding the world in which this takes place so I do recommend you read those first, if only for the fact that they are superb books.

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