Malcolm Polstead is a smart and observant lad who chats up all interesting wanderers in his parent’s tavern in their semi-magical town of Oxford. Malcolm befriends a nearby convent of nuns and the delightful baby Lyra they have come to foster. He stumbles upon a spy’s message and gets roped reporting back to the spy the tavern’s many characters and their ever-growing interest in the whereabouts of the baby. Malcolm soon finds himself on a legendary adventure to protect the mysterious and lovable Lyra.
As many listeners might know, this book is the long-awaited prequel to Pullman’s canonical His Dark Materials series. But it is Sheen’s narration that will envelop fans both old and new into in this iconic alter-world. Sheen gives unique voice to the wide variety of both human and daemonic characters of different ages, genders, and origins. Even secondary or tertiary characters like a fibbing school boy or hostile village man whose dialogue only ranges a few paragraphs are given this deft treatment. Sheen’s villainous hyena laugh will rattle just as much as his bubbly nun will comfort.
As the book shifts in plot and tone from world-building to adventure, Sheen brings the listener along with ease. Sheen puts on the gas when the action heats up and keeps the listener hooked with his rapid fire delivery. Sheen keeps his characters’ voices consistent and his pronunciations of the text clear and understandable even when the pace quickens.
This text is epic in length, subject matter, and reading level, and Sheen’s narration makes it more approachable. For example, Sheen treats the book’s description of sexual violence responsibly with the gravity and honesty that the text require.
Too often prequels and sequels struggle in contention for awards because readers/listeners might struggle to grasp the plot. But as a first timer in Pullman’s imaginative world (oh the tragic true confessions of librarian!), Sheen’s narration helps listeners grasp and awe at the many nuances of Pullman’s characters and themes. I felt compelled to listen the His Dark Materials series afterwards but didn’t think it was necessary to understand the audio. Book of Dust does, as the committee would sometimes says of exceptional prequels and sequels. “stand on its own”
Unfortunately, however, there are handful of noticeable dubs (times when a snippet of re-recorded text is “mixed” in with original production) are scattered throughout. But overall, this listen creates as the Odyssey criteria says an “unique literary experience.” Sheen’s narration is immensely pleasurable and immersive giving Pullman’s text a new understanding and enjoyment.
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage: Volume 1, by Philip Pullman, read Michael Sheen, 13 hours and 7 minutes, Listening Library 2017.