It is the coming-of-age tale of Malcolm Polstead, an 11-year-old boy who works in his parents’ pub by the River Thames near Oxford and explores the local waterways in his boat, La Belle Sauvage.
He lives close to Godstow Priory, which has taken in a baby, the young Lyra Belacqua who is familiar to Pullman fans as the main character in His Dark Materials. And when Malcolm witnesses an arrest in the local meadows, he enters an adult world of conflict between agents for the sinister religious Magisterium (also well known to readers of Pullman’s previous novels) and the spy agency fighting to resist them.
Key to the hostilities is baby Lyra. When Malcolm first meets her, she is in the care of the nuns at the priory and he marvels that “it was unexpected that something so small should be so perfectly formed”.
But darker forces emerge, including a gradual takeover of schools by a religious ideology linked to the Magisterium and a sinister, “astonishingly ugly” hyena-dæmon (an animal attached to a human) who is intent on stealing Lyra.
Malcolm also meets Lyra’s parents, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter, characters again well known to Pullman’s existing fans.
The first half of the novel is relatively slow-paced, though no less satisfying for it. The tone changes dramatically in the second half with the arrival of a magical flood that inundates much of “Brytain”.
“This – what’s happening now, on the flood and all – it’s a kind of… I don’t know how to make it clear. It’s a kind of between-time. Like a dream or something.”
The priory is semi-destroyed and the protective nuns incapacitated.
Malcolm narrowly escapes the clutches of a damaged convict, linked to the hyena-dæmon. He runs with baby Lyra to his boat accompanied by Alice, a young employee at his parents’ pub, and the trio escape down the river, now in full flood, in La Belle Sauvage.
From here, Malcolm and Alice carry Lyra through the transformed landscape from the outskirts of Oxford towards London and Lord Asriel’s home, becoming involved in adventures both ethereal and terrifying, while both sides in the broader conflict attempt to intercept them.
The final destination for Malcolm, Alice and Lyra is for the reader to discover, though fans of Pullman’s previous books will guess where Lyra ultimately ends up and why.
While knowledge of the His Dark Materials trilogy will undoubtedly add to the enjoyment and understanding of La Belle Sauvage, the novel is, as Pullman intended, relatively self-contained.
Full of Pullman’s trademark imagination, adventure and scientific exploration, this is an enticing opener to what promises to be another stand-out trilogy.