La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage was written by Phillip Pullman and first published in 2017. It forms the first part of a planned trilogy titled The Book of Dust, but at the time of writing the release date for the next instalment has not been announced. The series serves as a companion to Pullman’s massively successful His Dark Materials series, though this instalment is set ten years prior to the events of Northern Lights.

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead dreams of being a scholar, but has settled on the fact that he is likely to become an innkeeper like his father. Still, he is fairly content with his life. Not only does he help out his family in his free time, but he also uses his canoe – La Belle Sauvage – to run errands for the nuns who live on the opposite side of the river.

One day, he discovers that the nuns have been charged with caring for the baby. Lyra Belacqua was born as the result of a scandalous relationship between two esteemed figures, however Malcolm soon learns that there is another reason why the girl must be protected. The Magisterium are unnaturally interested in her and will stop at nothing to snatch her away.

It’s not long before Malcolm and his dæmon, Asta, meet Hannah Relf – an alethiometrist – and through her becomes involved with a secret organisation called Oakley Street. Although Relf is reluctant to involve such a young boy, Malcolm proves to be adept at finding information about the goings on close to his home that no one else can. However, the Magisterium are dangerous and powerful. Soon, Malcolm finds that he is the only one who can protect Lyra from both the Church’s agents and a terrifying stranger with a monstrous dæmon…

When La Belle Sauvage was announced earlier this year, I have to admit that I was excited. It’s been seventeen years since the release of The Amber Spyglass and I couldn’t wait to revisit the Oxford of Lyra’s world. Perhaps the amount of hype that this novel has received was part of the problem. I was expecting this book to be an instant classic, but I was ultimately left feeling disappointed.

Before I begin, I should probably note that this book is intended to stand alone. It’s a loose prequel to Northern Lights and, other than the infant Lyra, only contains a few cameo appearances from likes of Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel. However, I personally don’t think it’s all that accessible to newcomers. Some of the concepts of Pullman’s world, such as Dust, are not explained in this story. If you haven’t read the original trilogy, you may find yourself getting a little lost in places.

In terms of plot, I would say that the story is just okay. The book is separated into two parts. The first of these focuses on Malcolm and his involvement with Oakley Street, while the second follows Malcolm and his friend Alice as they attempt to reunite Lyra with her father. My main problem with this was that the plot didn’t feel all that focused. Like Pullman’s earlier work, it is told in third person and flits between a handful of characters. The result of this was that the story was slow moving and felt very padded in places, raising plot threads and often leaving them hanging.

The most frustrating thing about La Belle Sauvage was the repetition. Malcolm spies on various people around the city and reports back to Relf, who then reports back to her superiors. This means that every conversation is repeated at least three times. This is a bit of a personal bugbear of mine. You don’t need repetition of this kind in a novel. Ever. Readers aren’t stupid and don’t need to be told things multiple times. I personally felt that a good hundred pages could have been edited out of this story and it would have benefited from it.

The story is also quite odd. While His Dark Materials did have some fantastical moments, that was nothing compared to the events of this story that occur after the flood. I don’t want to spoil too much for you here but I will just say that the final hundred and fifty pages of this story are incredibly surreal and this may put off some readers. This part of the story reminded me a bit of Gulliver’s Travels and I was sometimes a little uncertain as to if Pullman intended for these chapters to hold a deeper meaning.

On the subject of themes, it could be noted that La Belle Sauvage addresses the same kind of theological issues as His Dark Materials and generally does so very well. I personally thought that it did a great job in showing that both factions – Magisterium and Government – were capable of producing both good and bad people. Just contrast the nuns with the inquisitorial CPD, or Relf with her superiors who do not seem to care about Malcolm’s safety.

At the same time, La Belle Sauvage did come across as being a bit heavy handed in places. A good example of this is the League of Alexander. This branch of the Magisterium is introduced earlier in the tale and serves a bit like Hitler Youth. It’s a way of encouraging children to inform on their friends, teachers and family. People rapidly grow to fear these kids, as they know that if people cross them at all they could find themselves dragged away for “rehabilitation”. In Northern Lights, the Magisterium-funded Gobblers operate in secret because they knew that their actions would spark controversy. The League of Alexander were far from subtle.

In terms of character, the novel is also a little varied. Malcolm was a really strong protagonist. While his instant affection towards Lyra felt a bit forced, he was otherwise a totally believable eleven-year-old. He came across as being a bit of a cross between the Lyra of Northern Lights and Will of The Subtle Knife, combining the very best aspects of their characters. Malcolm was quick-tongued, reliable and resourceful, but also capable of making impetuous decisions. All in all, he was a very well-rounded character and I certainly wanted him to stay safe.

However, Malcolm was the only character in the novel who received this level of development. The villain of the story was particularly flat – little more than a standard psychopath whose ultimate motivation was quite vague. Yet by far the most disappointing characters in this story were the female protagonists – Alice and Relf.

I’m starting to wonder if this is just a general issue with Pullman’s writing as I did note similar problems when I reviewed The Amber Spyglass a couple of months ago. In this story, the female characters do very little on their own. Although Relf is a spy, she is completely inactive. She spends most of her time in her home, and is the only member of the predominantly male Oakley Street that is not permitted to take part in the climax. Similarly, Alice barely appears during the first half of the story and spends most of the second part either caring for Lyra or running away while Malcolm saves the day. Female characters in this novel just seem to be weaker, more indecisive and less effectual than their male counterparts, and that’s just not something that I like to see in a novel.

Anyhow, I think I’ve made my point. I was really looking forward to reading La Belle Sauvage but ultimately felt as though it spread itself too thin. The story was slow burning and filled with repetition. While I didn’t hate it, it was certainly not the masterpiece that it could have been. I really hope that the next instalment is going to be more engaging.

La Belle Sauvage can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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