I always find it a little nerve-wracking when an author returns to a successful series after a long time away. There’s always the fear, for me at least, that one of two things is going to happen: either the author will be nostalgic about the original work to the extent that s/he makes the new book into a fawning tribute without substance, or the author will have changed enough in the time between installments that the magic is just gone. I’m happy to say, though, that Philip Pullman‘s new novel dispels both of those fears. La Belle Sauvage (2017) is, though not quite as much a game-changer as The Golden Compass, still a fantastic novel in its own right and a great opener to THE BOOK OF DUST.
The story takes place a decade and change prior to The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, for British readers), with the birth of HIS DARK MATERIALS protagonist Lyra. The child causes an immediate furor amongst both the local government of England and the totalitarian religious authority called the Magisterium, prompting both groups to actively seek to control her upbringing. Meanwhile, two young workers at a local inn, Malcolm and Alice, are caught up in the political machinations of the adults around them, and are ultimately forced to embark on a daring journey in order to preserve the baby Lyra from the dark forces moving around her.
It’s easy to forget after so long, but Pullman really is a hell of a prose writer and always has been. Say what one will about the frequent potshots at organized religion, HIS DARK MATERIALS is one of the best-written children’s fantasy series out there. Pullman’s authorial edge hasn’t grown any less keen with age, and La Belle Sauvage is immediately impressive on a technical level. Better yet, Pullman’s writing feels effortlessly engaging as well as artistically adept, neither talking down to his audience nor indulging in the kind of self-conscious phrase-turning that often characterizes clever writers trying to show their own cleverness to best advantage. Pullman is the kind of author who can confidently entertain both children and adults, short-changing neither group.
The characterization is so deft that one can easily tell the speaker in almost any given line of dialogue without needing to be informed, and Pullman evokes all the eerie strangeness and beauty of this alternate world with easy flair, grounding his world in character and image. While none of it is ever fully explained in the way it might be in, say, a Robert Jordan novel, Pullman isn’t really trying to give the reader a comprehensive knowledge of the universe, only the sense of the place. In that, he is almost frighteningly effective. This feels like the same world we left behind when The Amber Spyglass concluded, and considering all the time that has passed, that’s a remarkable feat.
Indeed, this is one of those books that is difficult to criticize on a technical level. I’m still going to do it (next paragraph, if that’s what you’re interested in), but on the whole La Belle Sauvage is just a very well-crafted novel. It’s plotted fairly well, the protagonist is sympathetic and engaging, each scene has a distinct purpose, and frankly it’s difficult to think of another author who could have made me so emotional over a canoe. Like that canoe, this book is just a very solid piece of craftsmanship, and it’s clearly been polished to the point of near-perfection.
That’s not to say that the book never stumbles. The latter section of the novel feels like it’s crying out for a final, extended set piece that never quite arrives. Instead, the adventure caps off with an episodic series of increasingly symbolic encounters that does start to drag a bit. Also, while Lyra acts as MacGuffin for the majority of the book (everyone seems to want her for one reason or another), the novel never actually explains why she’s such a big deal beyond a few vague hints. Pullman is apparently saving that for the next installment or is assuming that everyone has read HIS DARK MATERIALS.
Then there’s the matter of our main characters’ ages. Alice is 16 while Malcolm is 11, but Alice generally follows Malcolm’s lead and lets him take on most of the physical work and danger while she looks after the baby. It’s believable that a boy and a girl would fall into traditional gender roles in a stressful survival situation, but I’m not sure if that would extend so far as a 16-year-old letting an 11-year-old be man of the house, so to speak. I think Pullman was in a bit of a bind here, as Alice both represents and acts as catalyst for the burgeoning sexuality of the protagonist (and given some of the plot points, it would be significantly creepier if she was Malcolm’s age), but nevertheless, every time the exhausted Malcolm gallantly refused Alice’s offer to take a turn paddling, I found myself forcibly reminded that she could probably pick him up and give him a noogie while his little legs kicked in the air.
Finally, it behooves me to add that Pullman’s depiction of the Catholic Church is not much less negative than it was in the original trilogy. I think he is trying to soften (or perhaps simply broaden) the point of his criticism this time around, associating the Magisterium as much with simple fascism as with Christianity and affording us a few nuns who stand as an example of “good” Christians, but readers who are sensitive to a bleak depiction of religion might wish to look elsewhere.
Overall, though, I’d like to reiterate that these criticisms are minor. La Belle Sauvage is an excellent book and a worthy successor to HIS DARK MATERIALS. It’s beautifully written, immediately engaging, and features both likeable characters and a fascinating world. I look forward to the next in the series.
Reading La Belle Sauvage was always going to be a bit problematic. What do you do once you’ve got a trilogy like HIS DARK MATERIALS under your belt? Lyra and Mrs Coulter are some of the most defining characters not just in children’s literature, but modern literature as a whole. There’s no need to list the trilogy’s accolades, the awards won, the fanbase of both adults and children amassed. Revisiting Lyra’s world of daemons, witches, majestic Oxford colleges and the sinister Magisterium is impossible without comparing it to the story that came before it (and what a bar has been set!). But can the opening volume of this prequel trilogy stand its own ground?
Our story opens in a riverside inn called the Trout, a far cry from the stuffy grandeur of the Oxford colleges that Lyra grew up in. Malcolm Polstead is the unassuming, often unnoticed landlord’s eleven-year-old son and, as yet unbeknownst to him, the baby Lyra has just been placed in the care of the kindly sisters of the Priory of St Rosamund, a stone’s throw from the inn.
Being in Godstow, the Trout is the gateway to Oxford, and it is unsurprising all those coming and going to the city pass through its doors. One night three men arrive at the inn and ask Malcolm about the priory. Not long thereafter, Malcom and his daemon Asta overhear local gossip about a baby that’s been left in the care of the nuns of St Rosamund, daughter of the powerful Lord Asriel. It doesn’t take Malcolm long to discover the baby for himself, and he instantly develops a fascination for little Lyra.
What Malcolm doesn’t know is that the three men who passed through the Trout are working for a secret organisation, enigmatically named Oakley Street, that works against the Magisterium. Dr Hannah Relf (who will take over Lyra’s formal education at the end of The Amber Spyglass) is working in their service when her path crosses with Malcolm’s. They are both drawn into a world of spies, secret messages and covert operations, at whose centre lies baby Lyra.
But, just as in HIS DARK MATERIALS, the natural world is changing. There has been increasing rainfall, and after a warning from a Gyptian (readers will recognise Coram van Texel and his beautiful cat daemon with glee), Malcolm realises there is going to be a huge flood. What’s more, a stranger has materialised at the Trout: Gerard Bonneville and his disgusting three-legged daemon, a hyena. Malcolm sees him snooping around the priory and instinctively realises Lyra is in danger. On the eve of the great flood, Malcolm and the Trout’s kitchen hand Alice rescue Lyra from Bonneville’s clutches, and are all borne away together in Malcolm’s canoe, the eponymous La Belle Sauvage.
What follows is a tale reminiscent of Homer’s Odyssey and the Bible’s Exodus, in which Malcolm and Alice navigate otherworldly islands in the flood. The encounters are otherworldly too: there is an ethereal woman who claims Lyra as her own after feeding the baby her breast milk (a nod to Circe?), Old Father Thames, and an encounter with a Queen of a witch clan readers will be familiar with, to name a few.
The story is a relatively linear one, a simple cat-and-mouse chase. This is perhaps surprising after the complexity of HIS DARK MATERIALS, in which the story threads felt like they were being woven all around you. The story’s sense of simplicity is perhaps heightened by the narrator: Malcolm, only eleven, feels younger than Lyra did (there is that inevitable comparison) and, perhaps because he is less sceptical and deceptive, the tale seems slightly less rich as a result.
Readers might also be surprised to discover that, more than anything else, La Belle Sauvage reads like a YA contemporary novel, if you remove its fantastical trappings. Philip Pullman does not shy away from difficult themes of rape and abuse. The young protagonists are coming to terms with their identities and their sexuality, as explored through the daemons whose forms will settle once they reach puberty, and the taboo that prevents one from touching another’s daemon. Whilst the book does in many ways feel more like a children’s novel than Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) and its successors ever did, Pullman tackles these themes head on in a way he has not before.
One thing no one can deny is that Pullman is a master storyteller. His command of prose is absolute, and regardless of the novels that came before or those that will come after La Belle Sauvage, there is merit in reading it just to experience the mastery of his storytelling. He is economical in his descriptions when he needs to be and, although the novel’s cast is perhaps not quite as vital and immediate as that of HIS DARK MATERIALS (for who could rival the character of Lyra?), we still root for Malcolm, we still feel for poor, defensive Alice. And whilst Bonneville is not nearly as dastardly as Mrs Coulter, he still has his moments, including a truly terrifying scene in which he corners the children in an island graveyard.
So it is probably impossible to approach this book without comparing it to HIS DARK MATERIALS, but try ― if you can ― and it will be a much more rewarding experience. For fans of the previous work, cameos from Mrs Coulter, Lord Asriel, Farder Coram, et al. will delight.
Like many people, I approached La Belle Sauvage with trepidation. My reluctance to dole out five star reviews is largely because I am prone to comparing every young adult fantasy to HIS DARK MATERIALS — mostly unfavourably. I attempted to cast such feelings aside as I picked up Pullman’s latest offering, focusing instead on one question — is this a good story or isn’t it? Very quickly I knew I had failed. Comparison was just too tempting.
La Belle Sauvage is a good story, but not a great one. It’s an enjoyable adventure for younger readers but, disappointingly, not much more than that.
The plot has been perfectly encapsulated above, so on to characterisation. Firstly there’s Malcolm, whose defining trait seems to be pluckiness. We are told he is intelligent but resourceful seems more appropriate. Essentially he’s good with screws and boats and is very good at never giving up. But the problem with picking a nice, but fairly normal boy as a hero is that the reader is content to leave him be by the novel’s end. You know what I’m going to say — he’s no Lyra.
Nor is his companion Alice. I didn’t mind her teenage moodiness, it seemed fair enough given her circumstances, but I echo what Tim said — Alice does seem bizarrely willing to let Malcolm take on the entirety of the physical labour. All characters are a product of their time but Alice is used to working nights in a pub so you’d think she’d be up for a bit of paddling. I also couldn’t help but feel disturbed by Bonneville’s attempted rape and the way Alice is saved by an 11 year old boy.
Bonneville, at once charming, lecherous, and profoundly disturbing, is a real villain of the #metoo movement. The repeated call of his hyena daemon is chilling and the horror of Bonneville’s abuse, essentially an act of self-harm, feels disturbing even to us poor folk who lack a daemon (and wish we had one). A very worthy villain indeed.
The plot is a simple but mostly pacey one. The biggest stumble comes at the end as the children’s boat trip trundles on for a few too many chapters and, out of nowhere, a host of magical and mythological creatures pop up. The children hop from creature to creature in a trippy but ultimately linear sequence and it felt as if Pullman were allowing himself a moment of indulgence without any greater purpose.
La Belle Sauvage is a fun read but it lacks the wisdom and depth of its forebears. Where HIS DARK MATERIALS defies age-categorisation, the opening offering of THE BOOK OF DUST feels more like a standard children’s book.
Of all our reviewers, it’s clear I liked this book the least. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but I don’t think it adds much to the mythos of HIS DARK MATERIALS, and frankly, I’m not sure after reading it what the intent of the book is. La Belle Sauvage is a prequel to The Golden Compass, but it’s not a book that will make much sense to the reader unless they’ve already read The Golden Compass. So it’s not the introduction to the series even though the events take place about ten years before that book opens.
To understand some character reactions, you have to have read The Golden Compass. If you’ve read The Golden Compass, all the suspense is sucked out of La Belle Sauvage. It’s a conundrum.
I also can’t tell who the intended audience is. The book uses some foul language and doesn’t shy away from adult themes (neither did HIS DARK MATERIALS), but the plotting is solidly middle-grade, with convenient coincidences that make key moments very easy for our young protagonist, Malcolm. And as Tim noted, the age difference between Alice and Malcolm is marked, but gradually seems to shrink as the story progresses. Malcolm changes to fit the needs of the story, including acting as much older character, and that’s not character growth or a reaction to need (or trauma); it’s at the convenience of the plot. For example, it is a point of honor for Malcolm at the beginning of the book that he tells the truth. When it becomes needed, he morphs into an inventive liar (just as Lyra was in The Golden Compass). He’s still an honest boy, but he never stumbles over one of his inventions or contradicts himself.
Alice grows more compliant and traditionally feminine as the book progresses, even though it’s clear early in the book that she’s a scrapper. If anyone were going to take the lead with making up fake names and backstories, Alice fit that bill one hundred percent, but instead she scolds Malcolm about finding milk powder and points out that the baby needs changing.
Here are a couple of plot points I struggled with: The casual refurbishing of Malcolm’s canoe, which he has named La Belle Sauvage, by a grateful borrower. Unless the person Malcolm lent his beloved boat to has made a series of these connections all across the countryside, it is glaringly coincidental that he would help Malcolm this way. Given who the character is, it’s likely the help is not a coincidence, but that could have been established. Another plot point involves the infamous CCD, the enforcement arm of the Church, which has grown more fascistic and powerful, and their reaction to a nun refusing to turn over the infant Lyra to them. That threw me right out of the story.
Most seriously, Malcolm’s instant, wholehearted devotion to a six-month-old is incomprehensible, unless the reader already understands that Lyra is important. Malcolm is an only child who hasn’t been around babies; there is no reason he would be so besotted with an infant – except, of course, that it’s Lyra and he has to be for the story to work.
If you’ve read The Golden Compass you know what happens with Lyra. There is never a sense that Malcolm himself is in any real danger; Alice might be, but even that seems rather pale. There’s no real sense of danger and a potentially interesting adversary is squandered.
The last quarter of the book is a river-trip, not unlike Huckleberry Finn or Three Men in a Boat. It is episodic, with each episode becoming more fantastical, until suddenly the poles reverse and we are back in the land of fascist groups and acts of derring-do. I found this jarring.
All of this is not to say that I didn’t like it. I loved the edges of this story. I loved Malcolm’s mother, who never seems to leave her kitchen, but whose down-to-earth dialogue rang in my ears like the real deal. She is a working-class woman who loves her family and recognizes something special in her son, without making a big deal of it. I loved the prose and the descriptions. I love Pullman’s sly humor, well-exemplified in Malcolm’s relationships with his school friend Eric, a notorious gossip and starts all his revelations with, “Well, I shouldn’t tell you…” The League of St. Alexander was plausible and chilling. I love the origin of Lyra’s alethiometer, and I loved that Pullman spends some time enriching the background of the daemons. That is good stuff.
As I said, I enjoyed the book while I was reading it, but I did not have the sense of wonder that The Golden Compass engendered. I probably will read the whole trilogy, but it will only be so that I know what’s going on when others discuss it.