Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Book of Dust – Volume One: La Belle Sauvage Audio

The Book of Dust – Volume One: La Belle Sauvage Audio

Philip Pullman
For ages 12 and up
Unabridged audiobook (CD)
Performed/read by: Michael Sheen
Listening Library, 2017   ISBN: 978-0525522980

Most of the time Malcolm Polstead has a good life. His father owns the Trout Inn in a small village just to the north of the town of Oxford. Malcolm helps his parents out in the inn, and what he likes about the work is the fact that he gets to meet all kinds of interesting people. He overhears many fascinating discussions that scholars from the university have as they sip ale and dine on the wholesome inn food. Malcolm also helps out in the priory that lies across the river from the inn. Distinguished guests stay at the priory, seeking a respite from the busy world outside its walls.

One night three men come to the inn who are not the usual fishermen, scholars, or tradesmen. They are gentleman and it turns out that one of them is Lord Nugent, who is none other than the former Lord Chancellor of England. Lord Nugent questions Malcolm about the priory, and the next day Malcom tells the nuns that someone was enquiring about them. Sister Fenella suggests that perhaps Lord Nugent is seeking a place that will offer sanctuary to someone in trouble.

It turns out that this is exactly what happens. Not long after the visit of the three gentlemen, a six-month-old baby girl is brought to the priory. The baby, Lyra, is the daughter of Lord Asriel and a dangerous woman called Mrs. Coulter. Apparently there are people out there who seek to harm or kidnap the child, hence the need to bring her to a place of sanctuary. With Malcolm’s help, the priory handyman puts up stout wooden shutters to cover the windows, which will hopefully keep the inmates of the priory safe.

What is already a tense and concerning situation becomes even more worrying when Malcolm accidentally becomes involved in the activities of some spies. The spies work for an organization called Oakley Street, and the purpose of the organization is protect English democracy and to defend “the principals of freedom and thought and expression.” The Consistorial Court of Discipline (CDC) is an agency of the Church, one of many in the Magisterium, and it has been steadily stripping away the fundamental rights of the English people. The Oakley Streets agents have been working secretly to fight back against their actions.

Malcolm becomes friends with Dr. Hannah Relf, one of the Oakley Street agents, and he begins telling her about the things that he hears and sees at the inn and priory. He describes what happens when a woman from the League of St. Alexander, which is another of the arms of the Magisterium, comes to visit his school. The woman sets about recruiting Malcolm’s school mates to inform on people who are not true believers. The children should even inform on their parents or teachers. Malcolm, Hannah, and other like-minded people are appalled by this, but there is nothing that they can do except to lie low for the time being as they work quietly behind the scenes. The Magisterium is too powerful to take on at the moment.

Malcolm also tells Hannah when man with a hyena daemon tries to break into the priory to get to Lyra. When Lyra’s father, Lord Ariel, comes to see her, Malcolm helps the man get access to his daughter for just a little while.

Recognizing that the Magestrium’s followers are getting more and more powerful, the Oakley Street leaders decide that it is time for Hannah to set aside her university research so that she can work for them full time. They need her to answer questions for them using a device called an alethiometer. Perhaps with her help they will find out why so many people are eager to get their hands on Lyra, and perhaps too they will find ways to fight back against the Magisterium.

This is the first title in what promises to be a wonderful trilogy. As the story unfolds listeners will encounter a world that is a lot like ours in some ways, and at the same time it is also very different from the world that we live in. For one thing all humans have a familiar, a daemon, that is a part of them. In addition, magic is something that is alive and well, and it plays a subtle but important role in the story of Malcolm and his friends.