I listened to the audiobook read very ably by Welsh actor Michael Sheen. He doesn't sound very Welsh here it must be said. He often plays a weasely villain in movies. You might remember him from the first three Underworld movies where he played Lucian. He's also played Tony Blair, HG Wells, Kenneth Williams, David Frost, and Brian Clough! He did get a bit overly dramatic, even frantic at times in his reading here, but otherwise I enjoyed his effort as I enjoyed the book. It's a worthy addition to the 'His Dark Materials' canon and I commend it, although it's far from perfect, it has to be said.
This particular story is a prequel to the original trilogy, when Lyra was literally a baby and had to be rescued from the machinations of the Consistorial Court and also from a vengeful scientist by this young boy Malcolm Polstead and a moody girl named Alice Parslow.
The other two volumes in the series will cover Lyra at later stages in her life (this is why Pullman has described it as not a prequel, nor a sequel, but an equal). The story is very much told from Malcolm's perspective, but blessedly not in first person. Pullman is a writer who gets just how pathetic and limited first person voice truly is. The story is aimed at a young adult readership, but be warned it has bits of quite brutal violence and swearing throughout the narrative.
Malcolm's parents own the inn where Malcolm helps out and Alice works. Across the Thames from the inn lies a priory wherein nuns are caring for an infant girl named Lyra. Malcolm plies this river in his beloved canoe, La Belle Sauvage and he helps at the priory, too.
The more Malcolm learns, the more involved he becomes and when a flood prophecy from the Gyptians proves to be true and a once-in-a-century deluge hits, and Oxfordshire is swamped, Malcolm is unexpectedly thrown into a chase across three countries trying to deliver Lyra safely to Lord Asrael in London. He finds himself throwing in his lot with the antagonistic Alice to save the child.
Note that there are spoilers here which might make you regret trying to read these books in order. I recommend starting with the original 'His Dark Materials' trilogy (Northern Lights published in the USA as The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) before tackling this one. You may also be disappointed. This book is much more mundane that the initial trilogy, and the chase across the flooded landscape goes on with almost metronomic repetitiveness, so for me it sagged rather during that time.
I understand the print book is some 450 pages long. I listened to the audiobook and it didn't seem that long at all, because I was enjoying it so much, I guess! That said, I think Pullman could have used some self-editing here. The repetitive cyclic nature of the 'slow speed chase' rowing across the endless water, finding an island, rowing the water, finding an island might turn off many people, but for me in was just interesting enough to keep me reading and I'm looking forward to the next volume.
There were problems with this journey: almost no other humans were ever seen during the long aquatic trip, and the few that were, were always the villain, Gerard Bonneville, or the Consistorial Court boats. At one point we learned the Gyptians were out looking for Malcolm but they had only half as many boats as the Court, yet never once do we see one of those Gyptian boats, nor any boats bearing anyone else. How the Court and Bonneville managed to so expertly track Malcolm and Alice when no one else could was a bit too much to swallow and felt more amateurish than I thought this author capable.
I read some negative reviews that complained that Malcolm was boring and Alice never changed, and their roles were genderist, but it really wasn't that way at all. Just because Malcolm was in charge of the boat (his boat that he was an expert at using and Alice wasn't), doesn't mean she was confined to a traditional female role! This is not set in 2018, but at some time in the past when traditional gender roles were the norm, so this isn't a surprise, but Alice came through repeatedly, including decking Bonneville at one point, and Malcolm was repeatedly shown to have what might be termed a more traditional feminine side, so I really don't know what those reviewers were complaining about.
There's nothing weak about being a woman! There's nothing weak about playing to your strengths whatever they are. Some women want to be jet fighter pilots, others want to be homemakers and to chide the one for being traditional is insulting to the woman who choses such a role. Alice was doing what she chose to do and often telling Malcolm what's what. He consulted her frequently and she had no problem expressing her mind at will. How is any of that weak?
I recommend this as a worthy addition to the cannon. Just don't expect too much from it!