Before I took a long break from writing and embarked on year one of my literature course, I was reading The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman. It was another hardback novel gifted to me at Christmas, and upon receiving it, I was enticed by the sleeve’s beautifully carved lino print design and the front cover itself, which was sprinkled with flecks of golden dust. On its spine reads a quote from the story: “Ah, it’s a proper canoe, said Lord Asriel, as if he’d been expecting a toy. Malcolm felt a little affronted on behalf of La Belle Sauvage, and said nothing as he turned her over and let her slip quietly down the grass and on to the water…” the lettering, which has been embossed in the same metallic foil.
The Book of Dust which has taken Philip Pullman many years to complete and was hotly anticipated in the run-up to its publication, is set before the Northern Lights trilogy. As opposed to being a prequel, Pullman has decidedly called the new edition an ‘equal’ to the original series, as although the story takes place ten years previous when Lyra is a baby, The Book of Dust simultaneously sits alongside the original novels. As a heads up, yes, the novel does feature the Magisterium, the alethiometer, Lyra Belacqua, Jordan College, Oxford and of course, daemons.
The Book of Dust is by no means a disappointment. I thought it was well written with events moving at a steady, often swift pace. The narrative maintains a consistent level of suspense, striking a fine balance between being too dramatic or otherwise not enough. I caught myself gasping at a number of points! Although Pullman usually states that his work isn’t written with a particular audience in mind, I probably wouldn’t recommend the ‘equal’ to readers under sixteen or so, as there is an instance of moderate adult content which the child protagonist is disturbed to witness. That said, I very much enjoyed the novel’s mysterious tone and strong maritime atmosphere, depicted in an underlying weather narrative, which meandered its way through the main story. Eventually, these two merge in a spectacular climax in the final third of the novel.
I’ve summarised the first three chapters as follows… no major spoilers here.
Chapter 1 ~ Malcolm Polstead is an 11-year-old boy who works at the Trout Inn beside the River Thames, with his mother and father, and a miserable cow called Alice. For Malcolm, who is known as an inquisitive boy to passing travellers and sister Fenella at Godstow priory, he leads an uneventful but content life. Though he’s inspired by the conversations of gentry punters and dreams of being a scholar – with his limited education at Ulvercote school, he expects to inherit the responsibility of the family pub. One day, three politicians enter the Inn and a Lord Nugent is interested to know about the local priory across the Thames. Lord Nugent is an ex-chancellor from a previously more liberal govt. Malcolm and his daemon Asta notice that he seems particularly interested in the story of an orphaned baby, but Malcolm is not aware of such a story. Though, Mrs Polstead’s daemon Kerick seems to know something more.
Chapter 2 ~ The next day, after his shift, Malcolm visits Fenella to inform her of the visiting Lord Nugent and his keen interest in the priory. Fenella isn’t aware of a baby but suggests that it may have been protected there in the past. Later that day, Malcolm fetches his boat and rows down to the river with Asta where they see a man in a grey suit who accidentally drops something in the river bank. He eventually leaves but is intercepted on the bridge by two men dressed in black, and bundled away. Malcolm and Asta row across the river to the opposite bank and find an ornamental acorn. Unnerved by what they have seen, Malcolm rows back home. Malcolm and Asta get home and manage to open the acorn which contains an anonymous letter talking about a hypothetical substance called ‘Dust’ and something called an ‘alethiometer’. Upon arriving for his evening shift, Malcolm learns from his father that two members of the CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline) an agency of the Church are at one of the tables. To his lowkey alarm, Malcolm is beckoned over by one of them who asks Malcolm if he has seen a man. Malcolm recognises him as one of the fellow politicians who accompanied Lord Nugent to the Inn the previous day. The CCD man defiantly rips down some notices from the cork board to pin up his WANTED poster but a regular punter, George Boatwright makes an objecting stand. He is soon seen out in fear and disappears before the CCD can arrest him.
Chapter 3 ~ In the coming days, Malcolm repeatedly rows upriver to see if he can find the man who dropped his acorn. He also pops into the Chanderly for some paint and rope and reluctantly opens up to ask Mrs Carpenter about the man he saw by the riverbank. She shows him an article in the Oxford Times confirming a man called John Luckhurst a historian of Magadelane College was found dead in the river sometime during the week. Malcolm is terrified he and Asta and think it possibly had something to do with the CCD. Malcolm and Asta plan to find out more – but by only by stealth through chatting to college student punters at the Inn, in order to avoid the attention of the CCD – just in case they’re after the acorn. Upon returning home, Malcolm hears from his mum that the famous explorer Lord Asriel is in the pub. She tells him that he has a love child with the wife of Mr Coulter – Mr Coulter was furious and stormed down to his estate – but Asriel killed him and had to pay honour expenses for doing so. Mrs Coulter didn’t want anything to do with the baby and so has been taken in by the sisters at Godstow. Three days later at earliest possible notice, Malcolm visits sister Fenella and when he asks her, she obliges and reveals that a baby girl has been left with the sisterhood. Fenella takes Malcolm to visit the child and from that day forth Malcolm becomes baby Lyra’s guardian for life.
Overall, I would rate The Book of Dust 4/5 stars and I look forward to Pullman’s second edition in the trilogy – whenever it comes out!