Synopsis (Goodreads): Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy…
Malcolm’s father runs an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his dæmon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.
He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust–and the spy it was intended for finds him.
When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, Malcolm sees suspicious characters everywhere; Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; a gyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a dæmon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl–just a baby–named Lyra.
Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make choking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.
This is one of those books that provoked a terrible, and I mean terrible, book hangover! An “I’ve finished this book and my life is now going to be meaningless while I wait for volume two in the trilogy to come out” kind of hangover.
I read, and loved, the original Northern Lights trilogy more than a decade ago (and I fully intend to revisit them after this book), so when I learnt that Philip Pullman was returning to that world with a prequel, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the book.
The story got off to a somewhat protracted start – I would pick it up, read a little and then get distracted. The slow pace of the first half did however have the advantage of introducing you to the wonderful, curious and valiant Malcolm and his world, and to a baby Lyra with whom he formed an instant bond. Philip Pullman takes his time developing the characters, and the result is well worth it.
Around the halfway mark, the plot really picked up pace as Malcolm and (initially) unwilling accomplice Alice’s adventures in the canoe La Belle Sauvage unfold in their quest to get Lyra to the safety of her father Lord Asriel. I repeatedly found myself having to pause in between chapters just to absorb the details of the wonderful world Pullman has created so well (giants, faerie queens, witch queens, secret societies), the rapid-fire pace of events, and catch my breath.
Given the author’s strongly atheist leanings, organised religion (the Magisterium) is once again portrayed as the villain against free thought and action. However, in terms of new characters, Gerard Bonneville and his hyena dæmon definitely stole the show as one of the most sinister villains I have ever come across in children’s literature.
There is sex, homosexuality, horror, and swearing, and I don’t know if it’s just me, but there is definitely no condescension towards the younger readers here – young adult literature seems to have gotten a lot more adult. However, I can’t deny that it was pure bliss to once again get lost in a world of adventures, alethiometers, dæmons and secret societies – the next volume in the series couldn’t come soon enough for me.