This is not a bad novel. There are well-realised characters, the themes are imbued into the setting, there’s a lovely sense of a lived-in world, there’s a crackling sense of magic, there’s a considered structure, there’s that wonderful tense interplay between childhood and adulthood that Pullman excels at exploring. But there’s a real question of…why does this exist, exactly? It’s sold as the first of one larger book, or a trilogy (Pullman and the marketing seem wobbly on this, but that’s a very old semantic question for fantasy), where the next two parts are set after HIS DARK MATERIALS, but this first part is set before. A cynical take might be that exists to retroactively shove story-generative material into a series that had reached an extremely final, definitive, excellent conclusion already, so as to justify those two sequels. Well, maybe that’s true, but even then, it’s an enjoyable book that runs through a lot of Pullman’s greatest hits (lived-in sense of place, strong geographic realisation, rejection of dogma and institutions, understated imbued sense of magic, and most of all, probing puberty, the lines between childhood and adulthood, realisation of sexuality, and so on).
The book received some backlash for depicting sexual assault ‘on screen’, as it were, and the contrived circumstances of the assault did make it feel pained, excessive, where he usually has a greater sense of where the lines are in these sorts of novels. The book does better focusing on the more moments of childhood Pullman depicts.
“Well, use your judgment. Try not to seem interested. And we’d better get on and do what our cover story says we’re doing, and talk about books. What did you think of these two?”
Malcolm had never had a conversation like the one that followed. At school, in a class of forty, there was no time for such a thing, even if the curriculum allowed it, even if the teachers had been interested; at home it wouldn’t have happened, because neither his father nor his mother was a reader; in the bar he was a listener rather than a participant; and the only two friends with whom he might have spoken seriously about such things, Robbie and Tom, had none of the breadth of learning and the depth of understanding that he found when Dr. Relf spoke.
“How many books have you read?”
“Thousands. I couldn’t possibly guess.”
“Do you remember them all?”
“No. I remember the very good ones. Most of my murders and thrillers aren’t very good in that way, so if I let a little time go by, I find I’ve forgotten them and I can read them again.”
The book melds childhood, education, dogma, oppression in a way HIS DARK MATERIALS never quite did as well, rather successfully. Perhaps the charitable take is the book is interested in what generated the sort of issues that rise to the fore in that series.
Malcolm’s headmaster, Mr. Willis, was still away on Monday, and on Tuesday Mr. Hawkins, the deputy head, announced that Mr. Willis wouldn’t be coming back, and that he would be in charge himself from then on. There was an intake of breath from the pupils. They all knew the reason: Mr. Willis had defied the League of St. Alexander, and now he was being punished. It gave the badge wearers a giddy sense of power. By themselves they had unseated the authority of a headmaster. No teacher was safe now. Malcolm watched the faces of the staff members as Mr. Hawkins made the announcement: Mr. Savery put his head in his hands, Miss Davis bit her lip, Mr. Croker, the woodwork teacher, looked angry. Some of the others gave little triumphant smiles; most were expressionless.
And there was a sort of swagger among the badge wearers. It was rumored that in one of the older classes, the Scripture teacher had been telling them about the miracles in the Bible and explaining how some of them could be interpreted realistically, such as Moses’s parting of the Red Sea. He told them that it might just have been a shallow part of the sea and that a high wind would sometimes blow the water away, so it was possible to walk across. One of the boys had challenged him and warned him to be careful and held up his badge, and the teacher had backed down and said that he was only telling them that as an example of a wicked lie, and the Bible was right: the whole deep sea had been held apart for the Israelites to cross.
Other teachers fell into line as well. They taught less vigorously and told fewer stories, lessons became duller and more careful, and yet this seemed to be what the badge wearers wanted. The effect was as if each teacher was being examined by a fierce inspector, and each lesson became an ordeal in which not the pupils but the teachers were being tested.
The badge wearers began to put pressure on the other children too.
“Why aren’t you wearing a badge?”
“Why haven’t you joined?”
And, of course, there’s philosophy as filtered through a child as well.
“All right. Next let’s try this. Can you imagine another world?”
“I think so.”
“A world where Pythagoras never existed?”
“Would his theorem be true there as well?”
“Yes. It would be true everywhere.”
“Now imagine that world has people like us in it, but no bees. They’d have the experience of sweetness and of light, but how would they symbolize them?”
“Well, they…they’d find some other things. Maybe sugar for the sweetness and something else, maybe the sun, for light.”
“Yes, those would work. Let’s imagine another world, a different one again, where there are bees but no people. Would there still be a connection between a beehive and sweetness and light?”
“Well, the connection would be…here, in our minds. But not there. If we can think about that other world, we could see a connection, even if there was no one there to see it.”
“That’s good. Now, we still can’t say whether that language you spoke about, the language of symbols, was definitely invented or definitely discovered, but it looks more as if—”
“As if it was discovered,” said Malcolm. “But it’s still not like Pythagoras’s theorem. You can’t prove it. It depends on…on…”
“It depends on people being there to see it. The theorem doesn’t.”
“But it’s a bit invented as well. Without people to see it, it would just be…it might as well not be there at all.”
The most timely part of the book is how near everyone within it – institutions and people alike – ignore the very serious warnings of incoming catastrophe, gesturing at vagaries and thought-terminating cliches to dismiss the very real threat. When that flood actually does hit, the novel almost shifts genre, the second half becoming a watery odyssey with magic and romance along the way. Parts of this episodic ride work quite well, but the romance feels sort of tired after HIS DARK MATERIALS, and the novel’s central issue – why does it exist, how does it justify continuing HIS DARK MATERIALS? – hangs largely over it. Ultimately, it’s a good time, but it lacks the wow factor of NORTHERN LIGHTS, and feels sort of like comfort food, or a pandering new album by a once-successful band, playing what basically amounts to the old hits again, just under different names. Perhaps this changes in the next two books in THE BOOK OF DUST. For now, three and a half trouts, and a dead drop.