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Serpentine, a new book by Philip Pullman set in the universe of the His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust novels, is not properly a book at all. It’s a short story with its page count plumped up with numerous (charming) engravings by Tom Duxbury, much like 2003’s Lyra’s Oxford and 2008’s Once Upon a Time in the North (both illustrated by John Lawrence) but without the nifty, intriguing extras included in those books: a fold-out map, a board game, and “documents” like postcards and letters alluding to the then-forthcoming Book of Dust.
It’s also a lot shorter. Serpentine originated as an act of charity: an original, handwritten story by Pullman about Lyra Belacqua, auctioned off during the production of Nicholas Hytner’s stage adaptation of His Dark Materials in 2004, with the proceeds donated to worthy causes. The story is set sometime between the end of The Amber Spyglass and the beginning of The Secret Commonwealth, while Lyra is an undergraduate at St. Sophia’s College in Oxford, and it describes a minor, uneventful encounter that nevertheless sets up some of the most wrenching aspects of The Book of Dust.
Lyra accompanies the crew of an archaeological dig on a trip north, where she revisits some of the sites of her past adventures, including Trollesund, where she first met her great friend, the armored bear Iorek Byrnison. There, she seeks out Dr. Lanselius, the wise Consul of the Witches, to pursue a mystery that has been eating away at her: what happened to her daemon, Pantalaimon, when the two were separated during her sojourn in the land of the dead, recounted in The Amber Spyglass.
She could just ask Pan, of course, but she worries both that quizzing him about it before he’s ready to talk could further strain their bond and that not asking will lead him to think she doesn’t care. What Lyra wants to know from Dr. Lanselius is how the witches, who all acquire the capacity to separate from their daemons, broach the topic.
Although Serpentine does supply a glimpse of Pantalaimon’s adventures with Will Parry’s daemon while Lyra and Will are in the land of the dead, what actually happened to Pan after the separation matters less than Lyra’s growing awareness of the price they have paid for that trauma. For the first time, Pan has had experiences Lyra knows nothing about, and the pair can be seen bickering and reproaching each other with a seriousness never evident in His Dark Materials. The Secret Commonwealth depicts the widening of that division to the point that Lyra and Pan (to the dismay and heartache of many of their fans) have separate adventures. “When I wrote Serpentine,” Pullman wrote in a statement for his publisher, “I had no idea that I was going on to write another trilogy, showing Lyra as an adult.” And in this 16-year-old story, he prefigured the painful estrangement between his heroine and her daemon that he had no inkling would feature in a future novel about Lyra’s adulthood.
What more do we learn about Lyra’s world from Serpentine? Not a whole lot, just that Trollesund has fallen into semi-ruin after Iorek Byrnison’s departure and that the Arctic suffered climate disruptions as a result of Lord Asriel’s war. Pullman also doles out a few more details about how the witches acquire the ability separate from their daemons. They travel to what Lanselius calls “a region of devastation” in central Siberia, once the site of a “prosperous city.” But the city’s inhabitants “made war with the spirit world,” and the area become uninhabitable to any living thing.
Lyra believes this “war” to be in truth some kind of encounter with another universe, obviously without the use of the subtle knife, which had yet to be created. The prospect intrigues her, perhaps because she hopes to be able to see Will again by traveling to his universe through a passage less corrosive than the ones cut by the knife. And perhaps the next novel in the Book of Dust series will take her there.
Even more than Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, Serpentine is strictly for Pullman completists—newcomers to the Lyra novels will be entirely lost. Still, the printed book is a lovely object, with the aesthetic bonus of Duxbury’s cozy, Nordic illustrations. Purchasers of the audiobook, on the other hand, get a crisp, poised narration from Oscar winner Olivia Colman. It’s a less impassioned performance than Michael Sheen’s readings of the two published volumes in The Book of Dust, but Colman’s self-possession suits Lyra at this stage in her life: thoughtful, careful, and all too aware that the true consequences of our actions cannot always be foreseen.