La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust (Book 1)
by Philip Pullman
“Ah, it’s a proper canoe,” said Lord Asriel, as if he’d been expecting a toy.
Malcolm felt a little affronted on behalf of La Belle Sauvage and said nothing as he turned her over and let her slip quietly down the grass and onto the water.”
Seldom do I finish a book before Abi, even with all the books she reads, so when I got this book and was able to ensure she did not sneak away and read it before I could, I felt like I had to take the opportunity to do a ‘guest’ review.
Set in an alternate version of our world, similar in many ways but not quite the same, La Belle Sauvage was a nice return to a world I previously knew.
Volume One in Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust Trilogy, described by the author as an ‘equal’ to His Dark Materials Trilogy (not quite a prequel, not quite a sequel), we follow the plight of our young heroes, an 11-year-old boy named Malcolm who goes to school and helps his parents with the running of their canal-side pub, The Trout and Alice, a 15-year-old barmaid at the same pub. Malcolm, a lateral thinker with an engineer’s mind, he helps the nuns who live at the priory across the canal. It is here that Malcolm meets Lyra, our eventual heroine of the His Dark Materials. In contrast, Alice is a feisty young woman who, when a customer pinches her bottom, smashes a tankard and flings the handle in the offender’s lap.
Comparisons between La Belle Sauvage and Northern Lights are inevitable, and in some ways, unfair on La Belle Sauvage. The Northern Lights was the opening book in a new trilogy, where we knew nothing of what was to come. La Belle Sauvage, chronologically a prequel to His Dark Materials, will be read by most with the knowledge of what is to come, tempering the stakes slightly in some of the tenser chapters of the book. And whilst both books feature a significant amount of travelling, the main characters dragged out of their comfort zones and into scenarios they had never dreamt of, the scale of the travel is a clear contrast.
In Northern Lights, Lyra travels from Jordan College, Oxford, to the bright lights of high society London, before heading off to the Arctic, whereas Malcolm, gets to travel from Oxford to London in his canoe, because of a flood of not-quite-biblical proportions. And whilst Northern Lights is full of Lyra’s wonder at new cities and landscapes, travelling gyptians and talking armoured polar bears, Malcolm’s journey is full of struggles much closer to home, such as learning who he can and cannot trust, the process of warming and mixing babies milk powder and the prospect of having to change nappies.
I have always enjoyed the writing style of Pullman, especially as someone who first read His Dark Materials in my early teens. The language is interesting without being obnoxious, and the characters talk with a sense of realism that is not hidden away from young eyes. The awkward fumbling’s of youth are not locked away in a cupboard, nor are they glamorised needlessly. They are what they are and the story feels all that more honest for it.
I also enjoy Pullman’s world building. For much of this world, it is not the world itself that is new and made up, but it is the tweaks to physics, to society, the role of the Church, etc. that makes it a fantasy book. Daemons, an animal representation of the spirit of each inhabitant of Pullman’s world are, with little doubt, Pullman’s greatest invention and, much like many people love Harry Potter because they wish they could have magic, I can imagine many readers wished they had a daemon, or considered what form their daemon would take.
When it comes down to it, La Belle Sauvage didn’t fill me with the same wonder as Northern Lights did on my first read. But it did feel comfortable and familiar. Had I been reading this book in my teenage years, I would have finished it in one sitting. It is only that I have work that I had to split the roughly five or six hours it took me to read the book over two and a half days, split into commutes and lunch time reading. Despite the less wondrous travels Malcolm went on compared to Lyra, I still cared for the character and although I knew Lyra would survive the ordeals and go on to have her own adventures, there were moments of genuine concern for Malcolm.
Having finished the book, I once again find myself in desperate need to read the next one, and I have a head full of questions I hope are answered. This book was worth the wait, but I do not want to wait for the next one!