LA BELLE SAUVAGE
By Philip Pullman
David Fickling Books/ Paperback/ 546 pages/ $32.10/ Major bookstores/ 4/5 stars
It has been more than 20 years since readers first entered the dazzling fantasy world of British author Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.
With La Belle Sauvage, the long-awaited follow-up to his trilogy and the first in a new one, The Book Of Dust, Pullman returns at last to this world, but weaves a fresh kind of magic to keep us there.
Pullman's beloved heroine, the irrepressibly silver-tongued Lyra Belacqua, appears in a minor role as an infant in the care of the kindly nuns of the priory of St Rosamund, up the river from Oxford in an alternate universe from ours, 10 years before the events of the original trilogy's Northern Lights.
Narrative duties go instead to Malcolm Polstead, the 11-year-old son of the local innkeeper who helps out at the priory and so comes to know and love baby Lyra.
Lyra, as readers of His Dark Materials will know, is the illegitimate child of charismatic adventurer Lord Asriel and the beautiful, manipulative Marisa Coulter. She is the subject of a prophecy that predicts she will change the balance of all things, and has thus been hidden away in the priory.
But her safety is threatened by agents of the theocracy, a truly terrifying stalker and, eventually, an epic flood. It is up to Malcolm and his co-worker Alice, a teenager from a troubled background, to keep Lyra safe in his trusty canoe, La Belle Sauvage.
Fans will delight to see old characters return - not just Asriel and Mrs Coulter, younger but already deliciously conniving, but also the gyptian Coram van Texel, an itinerant swashbuckler who will become a mentor to Lyra in later life.
The daemons - the animal manifestations of people's souls that so endeared the original trilogy to readers - also return in full force. In a fascinating psychological portrait, the handsome but predatory Gerard Bonneville, one of the people after Lyra, has a crippled hyena for a daemon, which he thrashes in a horrible scene of self-harm.
As protagonists go, Malcolm is a decent lad, bright, steadfast and possessed of a quiet cleverness, though the bold fire of Lyra's voice is sorely missed.
Still, Pullman gives us new heroines such as Alice, prickly but loyal and admirably capable of taking care of herself, responding to a pinch on the bottom from a customer by smashing a tankard and threatening her harasser.
Malcolm also forms a connection with Dr Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar studying the alethiometer, a truth-telling device.
Dr Relf, who appeared briefly in His Dark Materials, is better fleshed out here, trying to juggle a double life as a woman in academia and a spy for a secret service dubbed Oakley Street.
La Belle Sauvage does not exhibit the epic grandeur of Northern Lights. It is a creature of a different mettle, far more domestic in scope. There are no armoured bears, airborne witch battles or spectacular escapades across the frozen wastes of the north. Its protagonists do not leave the England of their world, but even so, there is plenty of dangerous magic to encounter, as the flood lays waste to pastoral idyll.
What Pullman has done, by keeping the narrative focused on the domestic, is to illustrate the creeping rise of dystopia. Rumours of secret arrests and detentions without trial fill the streets. Men in black, claiming the authority of the Consistorial Court, menace the common folk - those who protest disappear without a trace.
Most eerie is the League of St Alexander, through which the children of Malcolm's school are encouraged to report on their peers, teachers and parents for any failure to conform. It reminds one of George Orwell's 1984, in which children are brainwashed into spying on their families for the Thought Police.
This is a fantasy calibrated for the reality of its time, for readers growing up in a world of narrowing borders and people pushed out onto the margins. It is a tale of ordinary but powerful bravery, that asks what it takes to stay afloat amid the waters rising darkly all around.
If you liked this, read: The Hounds Of The Morrigan by Pat O'Shea (Oxford University Press, 2009, US$25.58 or S$34.85, Amazon.com), a fantasy based on Irish mythology in which 10-year-old Pidge comes across a book in which an evil serpent is trapped, and must go on a quest with his little sister Brigit to destroy it before its power can be absorbed by the Morrigan, the goddess of war.