Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, October 19, 2017

Thursday, October 19, 2017: Maximum Shelf: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust #1) by Philip Pullman

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust #1) by Phlip Pullman

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust #1) by Phlip Pullman

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust #1) by Phlip Pullman

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

by Philip Pullman

The highly anticipated first book in the companion series to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is out today, 17 years after The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the trilogy, was released. "The [new] story begins before His Dark Materials and continues after it," Pullman said on NPR's Morning Edition. "You don't have to read it before you read [the original trilogy]... it's not a sequel, and it's not a prequel, it's an equel." Equal indeed--the masterful writing, fantastic elements and heroic journey that made the first three books shine are in full force in La Belle Sauvage.

"Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford... stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout." Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead is the son of the couple that owns the Trout and he, like "every child of an innkeeper," works around the tavern. An "inquisitive" child, Malcolm enjoys life at the inn, especially overhearing the interesting conversations held by people who stay and dine in the Trout. When not "on his own, playing with his dæmon, Asta, in their canoe," la belle sauvage, Malcolm helps the nuns at the Priory of St. Rosamund, performing small tasks and errands.

Down the river, Dr. Hannah Relf is leading a double life. An alethiometer specialist, she works at Oxford with a small group of other specialists to discover and track the many levels of meaning in the enigmatic truth-telling tool's 36 symbols. She is also a member of a secret service called Oakley Street, dedicated to studying the cosmic micro-particle Dust and eventually, hopefully, dismantling the Magisterium, England's Church-run government.

Also sniffing around Malcolm's neighborhood is the League of St. Alexander and the CCD, or Consistorial Court of Discipline, "an agency of the Church concerned with heresy and unbelief." The League is named after a young boy who was sainted for ratting out his non-Christian family to the Christian authorities. "Now, you may think that... we don't have pagan altars in our cellars anymore," the leader of the League tells the children in Malcolm's school, "We all cherish and love the Church. This is a Christian country in a Christian civilization. But there are still enemies of the Church... The spirit of little St. Alexander lives on today in every boy or girl who is brave enough to do what he did." Taking her lead, the children of the school become its masters as they begin to inform on any adults "working against the true faith."

Amidst this mini reign of terror, Malcolm accidentally intercepts a note from Oakley Street. Dr. Relf, the person for whom the note was meant, uses the alethiometer to figure out where her contact has gone, and learns that Malcolm has the correspondence. Discovering he is an extremely intelligent and responsible boy, Dr. Relf asks him to act as something of an informant to Oakley Street, even though she is wary of putting the boy in danger. Malcolm, a friend to anyone with a great number of books, eagerly agrees.

His favorite new subject to discuss is the baby being housed at the Priory of St. Rosamund. The baby girl's mother, Mrs. Coulter, refused custody of the child and her father, Lord Asriel, has made himself "a nuisance to the Church." Thus, she and her tiny dæmon, Pantalaimon, have been taken into Church custody. Malcolm is immediately enamored with baby Lyra and dedicates himself to her health and safety. A difficult task, it turns out, as there are many forces interested in getting a hold of the child: Mrs. Coulter, despite forgoing custody, hears rumor that the witches have a prophecy concerning Lyra and decides her child might be useful after all; a branch of the Magisterium wants custody of Lyra, presumably to control her father; and Gerard Bonneville, a man with a hideously upsetting hyena dæmon, wants the baby to exact revenge upon her parents.

After a visit from Lord Asriel, an interlude with the important Gyptian Coram van Texel, and some terrifying displays from the seemingly unhinged Gerard Bonneville, a great flood descends upon Oxford. Coram van Texel warns Malcolm that it is "not a normal flood... there's things in the water been disturbed, and things in the sky too, and they're both clear and bright to them as can read the signs.... Be ready." Malcolm is prepared when the rain starts but not ready for this monstrous flood that seems to have taken over the entire world. When the storm destroys the Priory, Malcolm and Alice, a young woman who works in the kitchen at the Trout, rescue Lyra and find themselves on a dangerous journey through an altered Oxford of witches, fae folk, ghosts and magical river beings. Chased by Bonneville, the CCD and a number of supernatural creatures, Malcolm and Alice desperately try to find safe harbor for themselves and the baby in their care.

Pullman's La Belle Sauvage takes place in the world of Lyra's Oxford, building more fantastical features atop the world with which readers of His Dark Materials are familiar. Added to the very special magic of The Golden Compass are creatures of older lore, a lore that has deep roots in both Lyra's and our England. New readers to this world will find the work easily accessible--no former knowledge is necessary to enjoy this immersive, creepy, edge-of-your-seat adventure. The smaller, everyday world of the two children is impacted by the universe of politics, intrigue and fate around them, creating a novel that does justice to, while also re-creating, the epic nature of His Dark Materials. Le Belle Sauvage begins what will inevitably be a beautifully wrought, enchanting series. --Siân Gaetano

Knopf, $22.99, hardcover, 464p., ages 11-up, 9780375815300, October 19, 2017

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust #1) by Phlip Pullman

Exploring the Remarkable World of Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman (photo: Michael Leckie)

Nancy Siscoe (photo: Michael Lionstar)

Nancy Siscoe is a senior executive editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers. She started at Knopf in 1996, not long after the publication of The Golden Compass. She began working with Philip Pullman in 2010.

How did this second trilogy come to pass? Who brought it up to whom? How long has it been in the works?

The idea for The Book of Dust began many years ago--not long after the publication of The Amber Spyglass. Philip Pullman had been wanting to tell the story of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College, and in thinking about that, a longer story began to take shape in his mind--one that would begin when Lyra was just a baby, and would end with her as an adult. The idea began small, and has grown over the years into something truly magnificent.

How did you prepare to work on this new trilogy? Did you revisit His Dark Materials?

The Golden Compass was published just before I started at Knopf--it was a big part of why I wanted to work here! I was utterly enthralled with the world(s) Philip Pullman had created. And, of course, I awaited The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass with incredible impatience. Joan Slattery, Philip's Knopf editor at the time, knew how obsessed I was and allowed me to read both books in manuscript as they progressed. The stories are so complex and grand that it's essential to have someone to discuss them with, and it was my pleasure and privilege to be that person for her. (I also give my profound thanks to Marisa DiNovis, who played that same role for me with La Belle Sauvage.)

I've read all the books many times, and I did read them again recently when I knew La Belle Sauvage was imminent. But over the years I've read every scrap of writing that related in any way to His Dark Materials over and over--I'm that kind of fan.

What was it like "fact-checking" this work? How did you and Mr. Pullman maintain continuity between the original works and this one?

As a rabid fan, I felt it was essential to make sure all the story lines and facts and details of the world mesh seamlessly between His Dark Materials and this new trilogy. I'm exactly the reader who would notice if it didn't! When we knew the new story was coming soon, I asked our copy editing department to create an exhaustive guide to His Dark Materials. The document proved invaluable.  

This work repeatedly brings the readers back to the "real world," with diaper changes, stops for food and comments on being unbathed. It's rare to see "realistic" asides like this in adventure stories. As editor, how did you feel about those pieces?

I love them! It's exactly those details that make the story so real and grounded. You feel you are on the journey with Malcolm and Lyra and Alice in a very physical way. Philip Pullman often denies that he's writing fantasy--he likes to say that he's writing stark reality, just about a different place. And that's the quality you've picked up on, I think. It's part of what makes the books appeal to fantasy lovers and non-fantasy lovers alike.

La Belle Sauvage takes place in Lyra's world, which appears, at least to those of Will's world, quite full of magic. But there are some notable magical additions in this work. Where did the idea for the flooded, through-the-looking-glass Britain of fair folk and river gods come from? How do you think it works with the original three books?

Yes! Isn't it exciting? The Gyptians call that sort of phenomenon the Secret Commonwealth. Some people in Lyra's world believe in such spirits, while others clearly don't. And I love how that aligns with the idea of Dust--another phenomenon that is not well understood and hence feared. Are these kinds of things fantastical or real? The domain of the church or scientists? Or are these distinctions even useful? Is there some other way of understanding the world? These questions are at the heart of what Philip Pullman is exploring.

La Belle Sauvage is a strong stand-alone; how are you inviting in readers unfamiliar with His Dark Materials?

The wonderful part of this book's taking place before the events of His Dark Materials is that there really is no barrier to new readers. It's a brilliant story that does stand alone. And one that will surely send readers on to The Golden Compass if they haven't read it already. But I've also been hearing from many people who are either re-reading the trilogy before this new book comes out or using this as the impetus to finally read the books they've been meaning to for years. Any approach is fine by me! Whatever brings new readers to this remarkable writer's works is a good thing.

What is Mr. Pullman up to?

He's working on the second volume of The Book of Dust, of course! When he's not doing interviews and signing copies of La Belle Sauvage for us, and for his many publishers around the world, that is. But I've seen an early draft of the next book, and I am quite desperate for him to get back to it.

Are you allowed to hint at who we'll be seeing in the next book?

It's been revealed that the next story takes place when Lyra is 20, so there's quite a leap between this book and the next. But the connections will be clear when you read it, I promise. I wish I wasn't sworn to secrecy! The places Mr. Pullman will be taking us--oh! It's just mind-blowingly good! --Siân Gaetano

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