Twenty-two years after the release of the first book in His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman is set to release a new three-part series to stand “beside it” called The Book of Dust, with the character of Lyra “at the centre of the story”.
The first yet-to-be-named instalment in the series will be released on 19th October published jointly by Penguin Random House Children’s and David Fickling Books in the UK, while Random House Children’s will publish it in the US. Fickling is Pullman’s longtime editor, leaving Random House to set up his own publishing house in 2013, and will partner with PRH on editorial, marketing and publicity.
The first instalment of the original trilogy Northern Lights was published 22 years ago by Scholastic UK, and went on to be published in more than 40 languages. It was set in a parallel universe and featured the transformative element of "dust". Since then, Pullman said his readers had been waiting for The Book of Dust for "a long time".
The first volume is set 10 years before Northern Lights and centres on the popular character Lyra Belacqua, starting at the beginning of her story and returning 20 years later. Alethiometers, daemons and the Magisterium feature but the book also introduces new characters including a new hero. The title is set between Oxford and London, in the same parallel Britain (or Brytain) from His Dark Materials trilogy. The second volume in the new series will cover Lyra's life 20 years later, but the content of the third book has not yet been revealed.
Pullman said it gave him “much excitement and pleasure” to announce the first book with Lyra at the “centre of the story”. He said the series doesn't stand before or after His Dark Materials, "but beside it”.
“I know from their letters and tweets that my readers have been waiting patiently (mostly) for The Book of Dust for a long time," Pullman said. "It gives me great pleasure and some excitement at last to satisfy their curiosity (and mine) about this book."
Pullman said the events involving Lyra in the book "open the first chapter, and will close the last".
"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."
Pullman said the book was neither a prequel or a sequel. "In fact, The Book of Dust is… an ‘equel’. It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it," he said. "It’s a different story, but there are settings that readers of His Dark Materials will recognise, and characters they’ve met before."
The author said the series would introduce some new characters including "an ordinary boy" (a boy we have seen in an earlier part of Lyra’s story, if we were paying attention) who, with Lyra, is caught up in a "terrifying adventure that takes him into a new world".
He added that he wanted to return to Lyra's world because of "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.”
Hype has already begin to build around the new publication from the world famous author, with Waterstones m.d James Daunt saying he believes it could be worth £8m in sales to the chain.
David Fickling, publisher and editor of David Fickling Books, compared the new series to adventures such as Treasure Island. “There is a mystery here, an exciting mystery and I urge any reader to set out on the adventure," he said. "You will not be disappointed. The Book of Dust is magnificent.”
He added to The Bookseller: “I am just really, really excited...Readers will be astounded. And more than that they will be blown away. It is really important to publish something which really sparkles and has great storytelling and means something. Readers won’t want it to end. I think he has done a very special thing with this book. You get that glimpse that there are things to discover and find out and be. I immediately got a glint in my reader’s eye when I first read Northern Lights. We are so proud to be publishing Philip."
Fickling would not be drawn on how long it took Pullman to write the first in the series, but said the author was quoted as writing “about three pages of longhand a day so that gives you a guide”. He described the moment he first discovered Pullman, when the author was an Oxford schoolteacher: “I first came across Philip in 1984 when a typewritten document turned up on my desk. It was Ruby in the Smoke I read it that morning, straight through before lunch. I was 29 and I’m 64 now. I remember running over to my colleague and shouting, ‘I’ve got just read the most amazing story.’ We [Oxford University Press] published it as it came in. He is one of the great writers. But he would never make these claims about himself."
Fickling also confirmed that Pullman has cut off his ponytail. He said: “Philip has cut his hair, he kept that promise to himself (Pullman pledged to keep the hairstyle until he finished The Book of Dust) - but I haven’t seen where the ponytail is. He has a smile as well as being serious.”
Daunt, m.d of Waterstones, anticipated that the release of the series would have a big impact on the chain's sales and added that the importance of Pullman to the cause of reading "cannot be overstated".
"The generations still in their first quarter century read first Harry Potter, then the complex, gripping and provocative His Dark Materials,” he said.
He told The Bookseller: “There is huge commercial excitement (for these books). It is one of the few [books] to make a material difference, like (J K Rowling's) Harry Potter and The Cursed Child (Little, Brown). I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a two per cent impact to our revenue (around £8m), a massive difference, like our colouring books and Cursed Child, I think it will be on a par with that. It would be one and a half [per cent] and then you get boost of the backlist and the wallop. Like Harry Potter, people forget how much was in the original books, and many people will not have read Northern Lights, so we have how many months of selling those."
He added: “It will be another queues at midnight book - I jolly well hope so. We haven’t finalised events yet but there’s time to plan. I wasn’t at Waterstones when [Northern Lights] came out, I was at Daunt Books but it was like Harry Potter, we got a big bump and we never lost them it again. It introduces people to reading and cements their love of books. People go back to them again and again. They are hugely important and seminal books."
The Waterstones chief is also delighted with the timing of the October release. He said: “The book comes around half-term time, before the kick-off for Christmas, it’s the perfect time and builds excitement. It’s just altogether perfect. We are very happy indeed and have time to plan.”
Francesca Dow, m.d of Penguin Random House Children’s (UK), added: “The Book of Dust is a story for our time, with themes that resonate with our world today. It is a story for everybody: a much longed-for treat for established fans of His Dark Materials as they meet Lyra Belacqua again and the chance for new readers to step into the magical world of Philip Pullman for the first time. Pullman is a master storyteller, and Lyra has established herself firmly as one of the most-loved characters in literature."
The His Dark Materials series has sold around 4.5 million copies in the UK thorugh Nielsen BookScan (including gift boxes and film tie-ins). Last November the BBC announced it would be developing a dramatisation to be filmed in Wales.
Pullman has spoken out recently against Donald Trump, labelling him a “savage”. As president of the Society of Authors, he has also campaigned for authors’ rights and resigned as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival last year over its failure to pay authors for events, prompting the festival to later change its policy.