Philip Pullman has ended years of speculation by announcing that The Book of Dust, an epic fantasy trilogy that will stand alongside his bestselling series, His Dark Materials, will be published in October around the world.
The as-yet-untitled first volume of The Book of Dust, due out on 19 October, will be set in London and Oxford, with the action running parallel to the His Dark Materials trilogy. A global bestseller since the first volume, Northern Lights, was published in 1995, Pullman’s series has sold more than 17.5m copies and been translated into 40 languages.
Pullman’s brave and outspoken heroine, Lyra Belacqua, will return in the first two volumes. Featuring two periods of her life – as a baby and 10 years after His Dark Materials ended – the series will include other characters familiar to existing readers, as well as creations such as alethiometers (a clock-like truth-telling device), daemons (animals that are physical manifestations of the human spirit) and the Magisterium, the church-like totalitarian authority that rules Lyra’s world.
The Oxford-based former teacher said he had returned to the world of Lyra because he wanted to get to the bottom of “Dust”, the mysterious and troubling substance at the centre of the original books. “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,” Pullman said.
In a description that will resonate with the current political climate, he added that “at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free”.
But David Fickling, whose firm, David Fickling Books, will publish The Book of Dust in the UK jointly with Penguin Random House children’s books, warned readers not to draw too many parallels between the new book and the current political situation in the UK or US. “I think it is a really important book for now, not in an intellectual way, but in a storytelling way,” Fickling said. He said the book would “resonate on a psychological level” and added: “Some of the best people for telling us the truth about our times are our great storytellers and Philip is one of them.”
Exact details of the plot are a closely guarded secret. However, Fickling hinted that readers would not have to wait 17 years – the gap between the last volume of His Dark Materials and the first of The Book of Dust – before the new series would conclude. The BBC reported on Wednesday that Pullman had completed the first and second volumes already, and was working on the third. Asked when the second volume would be published, Fickling replied, laughing: “You need to ask him, but readers should know they have a big treat ahead of them.”
The puzzle of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College, Oxford, in her alternative universe, initiated the new trilogy. “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. Describing it as neither sequel nor prequel, but an “equel”, he added: “It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it. It’s a different story, but there are settings that readers of His Dark Materials will recognise and characters they’ve met before.”
Speaking to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, Pullman said the first book of the trilogy opened roughly 10 years before the action of Northern Lights, and the series “continues roughly 10 years after His Dark Materials”.
“So we see Lyra both as a baby and we see her in the second book as an adult; she’s 20 years old,” Pullman added. “There she can fully take agency of the story, so to speak.”
Dust, as described in the original series, has been equated to dark matter. It is expected that Pullman will incorporate the latest findings about the substance, which scientists say exists because of evidence of its gravitational impact on the motion of visible matter.
Though Pullman’s publisher would not confirm how this research would feature in the book, Fickling admitted that it had some influence. “He has a capacious mind and is sent nearly every scientific book before publication,” he said. “If you visit his house, you will see all these books that are way above everyone else, he doesn’t miss much that is going on.”
The quest to understand, use and destroy Dust is central to His Dark Materials. But as well as being analogous to dark matter, Pullman has said that it is a metaphor for the original story, which he based upon Milton’s Paradise Lost. In His Dark Materials, the Magisterium regards it as evidence of original sin, which must be destroyed before children emerge from puberty into adulthood when their daemons, the animal familiars that represent their spirits, take their final form.
“Dust is an analogy of consciousness, and consciousness is this extraordinary property we have as human beings,” Pullman told the Today programme. “The story I’m telling in this book is more about in terms of William Blake’s vision, his idea of a fiercely reductive way of seeing things: it’s right or wrong; it’s black or white.
“He said that was far too limiting and we should bring out truer human vision when we see things, surround them all with a sort of penumbra of imagination and memories and hopes and expectations and fears and all these things.
“It’s an attack on the reductionism, the merciless reductionism, of doctrines with a single answer.”
Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003, Pullman noted that the Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, had taken more flak for the magic in her books than he had for his overt criticism of organised religion. “I’ve been surprised by how little criticism I’ve got,” he told the newspaper. “Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak … Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”