I feel like I ought to preface this review by admitting that I’m going to have difficulty being objective on this one. I have been a fan of His Dark Materials for many years – it’s a series that I have read many times. It was a good 6 or 7 years ago that I quietly accepted that The Book of Dust probably wasn’t going to happen, and moved on. Longtime fans of The Dark Tower, ASoIaF and The Kingkiller Chronicles can probably relate.
Imagine my joy when in February, Pullman announced that the first installment in his long awaited companion piece was not only finished, but out in October. Elation! Followed quickly by, “Oh no. What if it’s not good?”
I needn’t have worried.
La Belle Sauvage takes place around 10 years before the beginning of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass. Our main protagonist is Malcolm Polstead, a plucky 11 year old boy who is immediately likeable. He is kind hearted, considerate and thoughtful, and he cares deeply about the people around him. Malcolm is an only child who lives in The Trout, a waterfront pub – his father is the Landlord, therefore Malcolm grows up mainly in the company of adults, and his personality reflects this. He does odd jobs for some of the locals, and has a particular fondness for helping out the nuns at the Priory across the bridge from his home. It’s a very positive portrayal of an only child, and my husband and I (both of us only children) discussed how much we appreciated that and connected with it.
Malcolm’s pride and joy is his canoe, La Belle Sauvage. This little boat affords him the ability to run errands up and down the river, but there is also a sense of independence and freedom, at least at first. When baby Lyra enters the scene and is placed into the care of the resident nuns, Malcolm’s love for the child is powerful and immediate.
As always, I prefer to avoid spoilers when writing my reviews, and in this case it would be difficult to give you any more of an overview without giving away key points of the novel. The story begins smaller and slower than that of the original trilogy, but there is a sense of creeping dread and wrongness for the first half of the book that slowly increases as the Magisterium pushes for more surveillance and power. There are themes reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty Four, and echoes of the Hitler Youth can be found in Malcolm’s school. It is genuinely quite disturbing at times, and one scene in particular made my skin prickle. Pullman is on form, scornful not just of the Magisterium, but those who are made complicit by their silent and unquestioning acceptance of it. Heavy stuff for a children’s book, and I strongly recommend parents read it first so they will be able to address some of the more interesting questions their children may have for them. Aside from these points, the novel is considerably more adult in tone than HDM and has content that you may prefer not to expose younger children to.
All at once an event takes place that brings the second half of the book and its shift to adventure into play. The pacing here is exciting but not rushed, and the threat pursuing the characters is unrelenting and occasionally quite frightening. I found I shared Malcolm’s sense of misery and distress at not knowing what has happened to the people he loves while also trying to evade a thoroughly unpleasant enemy. There is something about it that is almost reminiscent of a good zombie thriller – the ever present threat that advances slowly, knowing that at some point you have to stop and rest. Towards the end there are some interesting dreamlike fantasy sequences that raise a number of new questions about the world Pullman has built. I’m curious to see how he addresses them in the next installment.
Overall, I found La Belle Sauvage to be entirely worth the wait.
An additional note I’d like to add is that I picked up the audiobook (my husband was hogging the hardcover and I didn’t want to wait!), and I’d say I was about 50/50 time spent between reading and listening. Michael Sheen’s performance is absolutely stellar, and if you enjoy audiobooks I highly recommend this one.
r/Fantasy Bingo 2017 Squares
- Published in 2017