Title: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust Volume One)
Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Science Fiction, Young Adult
It has been decades in the making and has garnered legions and legions of new fans every week. In the world of YA fiction, this was going to be a revolutionary event. One that we, as readers of the original trilogy, had grown up adoring and clamouring for. And finally, a few weeks ago, Philip Pullman’s long-awaited addition to His Dark Materials world was finally published, and I jumped at the chance to get it a day before the actual publication date (it’s handy to know people in the publishing industry).
And here is my official review for La Belle Sauvage: Volume One of The Book of Dust.
Set 10 years before the start of Northern Lights, La Belle Sauvage follows the tale of the incredibly likable Malcolm Polstead and his daemon Asta and how he came to become acquainted with the heroic Lord Asriel, a baby Lyra Belacqua and help set the course of His Dark Materials. After living a quiet and relatively peaceful life in his parents’ pub, The Trout, on the outskirts of Oxford, Malcolm’s life soon turns upside down when a baby is snuck into the convent and put into the care of the nuns. It is then up to Malcolm to help shield this baby from the nefarious powers which want to cause harm to the child, and the lengths that he will go to protect Lyra.
Like with its predecessors, La Belle Sauvage is heavily influenced by Christian ideology and Biblical stories. Towards the end of the novel, there is an event that is very reminiscent of the Great Flood, and there is also an overlying story arc where the world that Malcolm lives in is controlled by ‘The Magisterium’ – known commonly as The Church. Fans of Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy will be familiar with this type of world-building, but I also don’t think it provides too much confusion for standalone reading. That is one thing I must stress about this book. La Belle Sauvage (despite being another piece of the world of Lyra’s world) doesn’t need the contextual read of Pullman’s other novels. It has strength and understanding on its own. The novel also deals with bigotry, persecution and the League of St Alexander – a group that is remarkably similar to the Hitler Youth and Orwell’s 1984.
For me, this novel had its strengths in the first two-thirds of the story. I feel that with the introduction of giants, river gods and fairies in the last third/flood scenes, it became a bit too ‘Studio Ghibli’ for me to digest. I felt that if he had introduced them earlier, it wouldn’t have been so jarring. (Side Note: I love Studio Ghibli, but I feel that it doesn’t blend well when you push them into Pullman’s world without any backstory.)
Once again, the character writing is fantastic. Malcolm is a singularly brilliant and complex character. One so driven by his need to protect Lyra, that he is willing to leave his family and deliver her back to her father. However, we do see moments of struggle with him, which the reader see him for what he is: a mature and conscientious eleven-year-old. The other characters, like the plucky Alice really come into their own as the novel progresses and Malcolm gets to know her. Fans of the original series will also be happy to see the return of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter.
A return to the captivating world of His Dark Materials, La Belle Sauvage feels a bit like coming home. We, as fans of the original series, will love the journey back into the world where humans have daemons (visceral pieces of their soul living as animals) and new readers will be transported to a universe that is so unlike anything they’ve ever read before. With a perfect blend of new material and old favourites, I can’t wait for the next installment!
To buy the book.