Over twenty years after the release of the first His Dark Materials novel, Philip Pullman is delivering a companion series. The Book of Dust will hopefully be the trilogy fans have been waiting for. Pullman promises that with Dust we’ll catch up with Lyra Silvertongue, the protagonist from the first Materials book, now that she’s a young adult in her home world. But will it live up to the hype?
Philip Pullman is one of my most favorite and frustrating authors. I adore his storytelling ability. The Golden Compass, also known as Northern Lights, is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s strange to me because in it, Pullman makes an alternate universe version of my religion into the biggest villain in the world. The Magisterium, the theologically authoritarian arm of the Catholic Church, seeks to control humanity through what amounts to spiritual castration. His Dark Materials follows the adventures of two children, Lyra and Will, and their place in a great cosmic war against God. In some Christian circles Pullman’s series is known as the anti-Narnia, and he himself seems a little miffed that J. K. Rowling gets more hate from Christian groups than he does.
Nevertheless, I love Pullman’s worldbuilding and I’m excited to explore more stories within it. The first book of the Dust trilogy will take place about ten years before the events of The Golden Compass, and explore the nature of the mysterious elementary particle known as “Dust”.
“Questions about that mysterious and troubling substance were already causing strife 10 years before His Dark Materials, and at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and enquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free,” he said. “The idea of Dust suffused His Dark Materials. Little by little through that story the idea of what Dust was became clearer and clearer, but I always wanted to return to it and discover more.”—via The Bookseller
In His Dark Materials, Dust is more or less physical evidence of both consciousness and original sin. While the original trilogy touches on these events, it seems like the first book may explore how the Magisterium learned about Dust in the first place, and how Lyra’s parents came to be so entangled with it. Dust is fascinating because it’s both a physical and spiritual substance. It’s hinted to be the substance that makes humans conscious, and Dust particles are conscious themselves. In The Golden Compass, Lyra comes into possession of an alethiometer: a truth-telling compass powered by Dust. When Lyra asks the alethiometer a question, Dust answers her using symbols and layers of meaning, and Lyra understands the answer by going into a sort of meditative state. Dust isn’t impersonal; at times Lyra thinks it gets annoyed when she asks the same questions over and over. Until now, Dust has been a mystery. Is Dust the real deity? Is it more like a life-force? The Magisterium claims Dust is original sin, but their despotic regime’s goal is to remove Dust from the world so they can more fully consolidate their power. A story with heroes struggling against an evil regime hell-bent on stifling freedom of consciousness, expression, and identity is definitely going to feel relevant in a world where our own political powers also seem hell-bent on constricting the rights of anyone who falls outside their very narrow status quo. The next two books in the Dust series will focus on events after Materials:
“I’ve always wanted to tell the story of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College and, in thinking about it, I discovered a long story that began when she was a baby and will end when she’s grown up,” Pullman said. “This volume and the next will cover two parts of Lyra’s life: starting at the beginning of her story and returning to her 20 years later.” (ibid)
These are the two I’m most excited for. Lyra was by far the best part of The Golden Compass. Reading the series as a preteen, I’d never come across a female protagonist, about my age, who was as spunky and clever as she. Lyra is so good at lying that she’s christened “Silvertongue” by the leader of Svalbard’s armored bears. But in the second and third books of the trilogy, Lyra is almost entirely sidelined. In the second book she actively takes a back seat to Will’s leadership and promises that she won’t use her powerful truth-telling compass (treasured by her throughout Compass) without his permission. In the third, Lyra spends most of the book unconscious. It’s not exactly a feminist victory, and some aspects of the story are quite questionable. It’s too easy to interpret Lyra and Will’s final, love-filled encounter as sexual. These kids are barely teenagers, after all.
Still, I’m hopeful. Pullman keeps talking about how this new trilogy will by largely led by a young adult Lyra; this gives him a chance to redeem himself from the original trilogy. We know from Lyra’s Oxford, a companion short(er) story, that after the events of His Dark Materials Lyra moves to St. Sophia’s College to get a proper education. She goes on to get a master’s degree in economics, with a dissertation entitled “Developments in patterns of trade in the European Arctic region with particular reference to independent cargo balloon carriage (1950–1970)”, a nice subtle reference to her old friend, balloonist Lee Scorsby. Lyra also continues to study her alethiometer. At the end of Materials, Lyra loses her natural ability to communicate directly with Dust, as Dust has finally “settled” on her, marking the transition from innocence to experience. In Lyra’s Oxford, Lyra has surpassed her teacher’s ability to read the compass.
All of this paints Lyra as the formidable, capable heroine readers remember from The Golden Compass. Lyra has always been one to bust traditional gender stereotypes. As a child, her tenacity and curiosity led her to explore the Retiring Room, a males-only territory for discussing important matters. While she’s initially charmed by Mrs. Coulter, an agent of the Magisterium, Lyra is quickly disenchanted by the endless shopping trips and parties and runs away. As a child, Lyra thinks women can’t be real scholars, undoubtedly an attitude she picked up from the men at Jordan College. But as an adult, she’s a scholar in her own right. I hope Pullman gives Lyra more agency than she’s ever had before, because she certainly deserves it. It never made sense for Lyra to take a back seat to any other protagonist. I want to see a Lyra who is smart, headstrong, outspoken, and a bit of a trickster. The Book of Dust trilogy is the perfect opportunity for Pullman to deliver.
The whole The Book of Dust trilogy is due for release in the U.K. and the U.S. on October 19, 2017. Have you preordered your copy yet? I have.