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Archive: Other Books > "La Belle Sauvage" by Philip Pullman (4 and a half stars)

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message 1: by KateNZ (last edited Dec 25, 2017 09:58PM) (new)

KateNZ | 2321 comments It'll be interesting to see the reader reviews start to come in on La Belle Sauvage, the first in Philip Pullman's new trilogy "The Book of Dust" . The much anticipated tale returns us to the world of Lyra's Oxford - and to Lyra herself, as a small baby whose life is threatened by a range of shadowy forces. But revisiting that world has its difficulties too - those who are expecting a repeat of the characters, philosophy and theological complexity of "His Dark Materials" may find that this book both is, and frustratingly is not, the book that they thought they were going to read. I think the safest way to approach it is - as Pullman himself has described the series - as an "equal" rather than a "prequel" to "His Dark Materials". Take it on its own merits and see where the journey leads.

While some familiar characters play cameo roles - Asriel, Mrs Coulter and the gyptian Coram and their daemons - the central characters are new. The story is largely told through Malcolm Polstead, a pragmatic (and intellectually precocious) eleven year old innkeeper's son who discovers that some mysterious men have placed a baby girl called Lyra in the safekeeping of the nuns at the priory across the river. Malcolm then accidentally witnesses the arrest of a spy, and intercepts the message that the spy was going to deliver. This chance encounter draws him into contact with members of the group rebelling against the dominant Magisterium, including Lord Asriel, Lyra's father. Each event links him more closely with Lyra and the central role that he has to play in protecting her. For that, he needs the help of Alice, an older girl for whom he has a strong - and mutual - dislike.

At base, this is a rollicking adventure story, with a long-running chase on the flooded Thames that left me breathless even though it's obvious Lyra survives, so things had to come out more or less alright.

Typically, though, there's a lot going on under the surface - this is much more than a straight children's story. The escape by boat (La Belle Sauvage) has distinct Odyssean elements, and ancient British mythologies of river gods and fairies are interwoven. There's more than a nod to Spenser's Fairie Queen at work. Good and evil seem more fixed than in the earlier books, but even Malcolm's horrific nemesis Bonneville is shown (though his treatment of his daemon) as a tortured man trying to escape himself. The appalling club at the school that encourages its child members to inform on those who are negative about the Church creates a surveillance system that's worthy of the Stasi - and shows how quickly power can be seized and used. The ferocity of the elements (particularly a flood worthy of Noah) mirrors the turmoil in the political and ecclesiastical landscape.

There are charming moments too. Finding there were nice nuns in Oxford was unexpected and warming. The descriptions of Malcolm's home, the (real life) Trout Inn, triggered some very happy memories of propping up the bar there on summer's days. Malcolm's confusion at the prospect of changing a nappy was amusing (though I seriously think that Pullman should have made him do it, rather than leaving the task to the more capable Alice). Malcolm's gradually unfolding understanding of his world and the way he articulates his growing knowledge are a delight, and the way in which baby Lyra's daemon interacts with those of the older children is fascinating (as one of them asks at one stage, when Pan becomes a mole, how does a baby's daemon even know about 'moleness'?)

For people with younger children, it's worth noting that there's at least one strong adult theme (sexual predation) and a couple of scenes featuring sexual encounters, though they are sensitively handled. Also Alice occasionally lapses into strong language - though it's entirely in keeping with the character and demonstrates better than anything the depths of her anger and fear.

I loved the book - my son gave it to me for Christmas, which only served to make me anti-social until it was finished. Roll on the next one.


message 2: by Denizen (new)

Denizen (den13) | 1138 comments KateNZ wrote: "It'll be interesting to see the reader reviews start to come in on La Belle Sauvage, the first in Philip Pullman's new trilogy "The Book of Dust" . The much anticipated tale returns..."

Excellent review. I may have to buy this one rather than get in the library queue.


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