I was considering giving this book a 4-star rating because it is not quite in the 5-start firmament of MAUS or Moby Dick, etc. But that would beI was considering giving this book a 4-star rating because it is not quite in the 5-start firmament of MAUS or Moby Dick, etc. But that would be stupid. This is a five-star book.
The plot has a few unfortunate reliances on coincidence and there are a perhaps 2 or 3 chapters that serve no real purpose that I can discern. There are cliches here and there of various varieties and there are all kinds of things to quibble with if you're into quibbling.
BUT OH MY GOSH, what a great story, so wonderfully told; what perfectly-drawn characters (dozens of them, each one distinct and memorable), what subtlety, what adventure, what emotion, what sophistication in the underlying premise of the tale. And it's a page-turner, that's for sure.
There's one scene near the very end of the book, where one important character says to another, "what the hell do you think you were playing at?" and a third character interjects with an answer that literally made me cry. Did Pullman manipulate me (a naive 67 year old child) to have that emotional response? Absolutely! And bravo, well-done. You set me up for 448 pages, and when you punched me, by God you punched me good. Well done, Philip Pullman.
In stories like this, so-called "science fiction/fantasy" or SF/F (& variants) that are set in environments where the laws of nature that we are used in our mundane existence don't necessarily hold, the success of the whole enterprise rests on the author's skill at "world building" — bringing the reader along, gently but irresistibly, to accept the rules of reality that obtain in the world where the story takes place.
Master world-builders are justly renowned, from Homer(s) through Shakespeare to Bram Stoker to Tolkein to Frank Herbert, creator of the Dune universe. J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter/Hogwarts universe is the most recent alternate-reality superstar.
La Belle Sauvage, in the context of Pullman's masterful His Dark Materials universe is a clear masterwork, not only for the adventure, the deep seriousness of the philosophical inquiry that drives the plot, and so forth, but also for the gentle/brutal but never prurient or stupid observations on those experiences and confusions and frustrations and triumphs that each of us (presumably) has on that (usually) unavoidable transition from childhood to adulthood. As we all find out (I think?) on that journey, people that we thought were good turn out to be bad, and vice versa, but most people fall into neither easy categorization. Much of the thrill of reading La Belle Sauvage comes from watching the two primary young characters learn how to deal with terrifying, life-and-death ambiguity. The ostensible story has to do with ambiguity about who are the bad guys and who are the good guys as two young people try to save a baby, each other, and the world. Other ambiguities run even deeper, much to the dismay of the young protagonists.
What a great book. What a great series. Yeah, I'm a fanboy. Discount this review accordingly....more