LONDON (AP) — Here are words millions of readers have waited many years to hear: Lyra Belacqua, and her daemon, are back.
The irrepressible young heroine of Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy "His Dark Materials" returns in a new novel being published in Britain and the U.S. on Oct. 19, the first part of a new three-book series collectively entitled "The Book of Dust."
For readers and booksellers, this is news to rival the discovery of a new Harry Potter story. "His Dark Materials" has sold more than 17.5 million copies around the world. It spawned a Hollywood movie, "The Golden Compass," and a hit stage adaptation.
Published between 1995 and 2000, the first three novels — "Northern Lights," ''The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass" — took Lyra from her home at Oxford University's ancient Jordan College to the North Pole and into parallel worlds on a twisting, hazardous quest. (The first book was retitled "The Golden Compass" in North America).
In Lyra's intriguingly unfamiliar world, Victorian-style technology mixes with advanced science and society is overshadowed by an oppressive religious hierarchy known as the Magisterium. Humans live alongside witches and armored polar bears, and every person is accompanied by an animal companion known as a daemon (pronounced demon) — essentially their soul made flesh.
Yet the 70-year-old Pullman hesitates to call his books fantasy.
"I prefer to think I am writing realism," he said. "I'm writing realism about a different place."
Speaking to The Associated Press from his home in Oxford, Pullman scrupulously guards the secrets of the new book. Even its title has yet to be disclosed.
The new book begins a decade before the start of the original trilogy, but Pullman says is not a prequel. Nor is it a sequel. Pullman prefers to call it an "equel," or companion story.
"The first part will deal with something that happened when Lyra was less than 1 year old," he said. "So in that sense she's the center of the story, but she's not actually an agent in the story. She is acted upon, so to speak, by other people who are very important.
"The second part, which will come out later, will deal with events when Lyra is about 20."
There's a new hero — a boy readers have encountered before "if we were paying attention" — and "a terrifying adventure that takes him into a new world." Multiple worlds abound in Pullman's complex, philosophically rich fictional multiverse.
And Pullman says we will learn a lot more about the nature of Dust, a mysterious substance loathed by the religious authorities in "His Dark Materials."
"The Book of Dust," published in the U.S. by Random House Children's and in the U.K. by Penguin Random House Children's and David Fickling Books, is likely to be one of the autumn's biggest sellers.
James Daunt, managing director of Britain's Waterstone's book store chain, says Pullman ranks with J.K. Rowling in his impact on publishing and reading.
Daunt said a generation of young readers "read first Harry Potter, then the complex, gripping and provocative 'His Dark Materials.'"
"Other books, other authors make claims and bring huge rewards, but these two imprint on everyone who calls themselves a reader," Daunt said.
For fans, the mischievous Lyra is one of fiction's great child characters, up there with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Scout Finch from Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Pullman calls her "this awkward, difficult, prying, nosy, lying, greedy, untrustworthy child."
"She's not a special child," he said. "She's not divinely gifted or anything like that. But she does have certain characteristics that lead her into trouble and which help her get out of trouble."
Some critics have ranked Pullman's trilogy alongside J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy saga "The Lord of the Rings," though he doesn't particularly like the comparison.
In Tolkien's Middle Earth, he says, "what's good is good and what's bad is bad and there isn't very much discussion about it."
Pullman prefers fantasy which wrestles with moral ambiguity and has "one foot firmly in this world."
He is also often contrasted with C.S. Lewis, whose saga "The Chronicles of Narnia" has large doses of Christian allegory.
Pullman has called himself an atheist, and some Christian groups have objected to his negative depiction of organized religion. "His Dark Materials" has been pulled from some Catholic school library shelves in Canada and the United States over the years.
Pullman says he thinks most objections to his books come from people who haven't read them. "His Dark Materials" took its title form John Milton's biblical epic poem "Paradise Lost," and Pullman's saga has a searching spirituality running alongside its mistrust of organized religion.
He says "The Book of Dust" centers on "the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organization, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free."
Global events make that a more pressing and urgent struggle than ever. Pullman says he doesn't try to draw overt parallels with the real world, but "they are always present in my mind."
"Why do we vote into power people who seem to have the interests of themselves and other large, powerful people in mind rather than ours?" he said. "Why do we vote to do something so obviously self-destructive as leaving the European Union?
"I might not be writing about Donald Trump or Brexit or Nigel Farage directly in 'The Book of Dust,'" he added, but the "questions they pose and the situations they set up are very much part of the world that I'm writing about."
Jill Lawless on Twitter: http://Twitter.com/JillLawless