We review La Belle Sauvage, book one in The Book of Dust series by Philip Pullman. Will this prequel to the masterful, His Dark Materials live up to expectations?
The Book of Dust – The Blurb
Malcolm Polstead’s Oxford life has been one of routine, ordinary even.
He is happiest playing with his daemon, Asta, in their canoe, La Belle Sauvage. But now as the rain builds, the world around Malcolm and Asta it seems is set to become increasingly far from ordinary.
Finding himself linked to a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua, Malcolm is forced to undertake the challenge of his life and to make a dangerous journey that will change him and Lyra for ever . . .
I read His Dark Materials as a University student (many moons ago) and loved them. Whilst I can remember the main points, I can’t really remember the detail. I didn’t manage to re-read them before approaching La Belle Sauvage. So crossed my fingers hoping this wouldn’t matter.
The book has all the hallmarks of Pullman’s parallel world; Daemons, Jordan College, even Lyra, albeit as a baby. This time we follow Malcolm, a publican’s son, who finds himself wrapped up in Lyra’s fate as the worst flood in years hits the river and his little boat – La Belle Sauvage
Whilst the main protagonist is a child, parents should be cautious, this is not a children’s book. Young adult maybe, but at nearly 550 pages with swearing and violence I would advise those 12 and under stay clear. There were some parts I found genuinely disturbing, especially involving Bonneville and his daemon.
There were several cross references to His Dark Materials and plenty of river side stops for fans to analyse in depth. Yet the book actually felt a bit dull at times. The flood section just seemed to take forever. There was also a lot of Lyra crying, needing to be changed and fed. I found the constant detail around these bodily functions grating.
For me the middle part of the book really seemed to flounder. I’d read His Dark Materials too long ago to really appreciate the crossovers. Too many pages were devoted to overnight stops somewhere seemingly safe, only for it to turn out not to be. There was also a lot of set up going on – Lyra arriving at Jordan College, Dr Hannah Relf, Oakley Street. It very much felt like an introduction. Which of course it is and which would have been fine if it wasn’t so long. Book two will really need to build upon this to make the read worth while. However it’s supposedly set ten years after His Dark Materials so I’m not sure how the two will connect.
Past the point of exhaustion
My other issue with the book was Malcolm himself. He was too goody goody. Too…..brave. As with Lyra’s dirty nappies, there were constant references to how exhausted Malcolm was. Yet he would somehow always manage to pull himself together until a break in the rowing allowed another sentence about his exhaustion to be squeezed in.
“He was nearly stupid with exhaustion and fear and cold…..’Give me the paddle,’ he mumbled, and with another mouthful of bread…,he pushed away from the walls of the great white priory and brought the faithful canoe out once more on to the flood.”
Worth the wait?
I can’t lie, I was disappointed by the book. I’m really hoping that book two in The Book of Dust series will make it all worth while. I will certainly hover over The Secret Commonwealth when it’s published on 3rd October pondering whether to buy it or not. Let us know what you made of La Belle Sauvage and whether you will be reading book two.