“Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them; a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .”
*This review does contain potential spoilers, from the second paragraph down.
La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, Volume 1) is the long-awaited return to the universe of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve been waiting for this ever since finishing The Amber Spyglass, and so it was with no small amount of expectation and trepidation that I cracked open the spine and began reading.
The story follows eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, the clever, curious and inventive son of the owners of the Trout Inn near Oxford. The story starts slow, establishing Malcolm’s character and the world he inhabits… and this is by no means a negative. Pullman delights in setting the scene and establishing the tone (harkening to a comforting, pastoral English existence), and it’s a pleasure to become immersed in this world. The writing is beautifully evocative, and yet masterfully pragmatic at the same time – and at no point was I hesitant to pick the book back up and dive in.
Malcolm represents something of an idealised character, whose main fault of innocence/naivety is counterbalanced with unerringly shrewd instincts. Ordinarily this would be a point against the novel, but the tone of the story and the world that Pullman crafts does fit with such an uncommonly (to us) competent, intelligent, and independent child protagonist. Sure, Malcolm lacks some of the faults and vivacity of Lyra from His Dark Materials, but La Belle Sauvage isn’t Northern Lights… the first half of this book is more slow-burning spy and political intrigue than adventure yarn. Malcolm is a quieter, more introspective child – careful and methodical, with the mind of an engineer – which fits well with his burgeoning role as a “spy” as the country falls under the rising shadow of the Magisterium.
The second half of the novel is more typically an adventure story as Malcolm and the slightly older Alice seek to survive an almost biblical flood, racing in the titular canoe La Belle Sauvage to deliver the baby Lyra to safety. The descriptions of the flood and its aftermath are wonderfully visceral and at times haunting, and the characters do struggle and are forced to rise above their circumstances in sometimes quiet, sometimes explicit, acts of heroism.
And it’s at this point that the novel loses some of its magic for me – ironically, with the inclusion of more magical/mystical encounters. In the same way that His Dark Materials was a retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Book of Dust will seemingly be a retelling of Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queen’, and it was the inclusion of these “fae” elements which I found most jarring and at odds with the rest of the narrative. I expect these elements will play a larger role in the next two instalments, but I can’t help but wish they were missing from La Belle Sauvage, or otherwise incorporated more fully in order to balance the earthly pragmatism which pervades the rest of the novel.
Then there was the dynamic between Malcolm and Alice which I found slightly unpalatable. There’s something to be said for the loss of innocence and the “opening of one’s eyes” to adult knowledge, and with that an awareness of sexuality and desire [pretty much the point of His Dark Materials], but the way this is handled between Malcolm and Alice – taking into consideration their relationship dynamic before the flood and their age difference – just felt forced. Plus the roles each character adopts during the flood – Alice as maternal caregiver and Malcolm as protector – seemed a little uninspired. I’d have rather seen those roles be more interchangeable.
And lastly, after finishing La Belle Sauvage (and being aware that the next two novels in the trilogy will take place twenty years later), I can’t help but feel as though this first book is an inflated prologue – a short story at heart, or novella at most, that will sit awkwardly alongside the following instalments. It’s difficult to judge not having read the forthcoming novels of course, but it will certainly be interesting to see how things stand looking back from the end-point. Plus the question of dust and consciousness is never fully touched upon in this novel, leaving the series title feeling somewhat of a misnomer.
But despite these (looking back, quite a few) criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was left marvelling at how well-written I found it. I cared about Malcolm and loved returning to this world of daemons and alethiometers, and I think it’s a testament to how well-crafted prose and characterisation can elevate a novel into something truly remarkable. The cameos from characters in His Dark Materials were also handled well, lending enough excitement for existing fans but incorporated well-enough so not to confuse new readers.
I really enjoyed it.
Overall, I give this four out of five stars; it only missed out on the ‘incredible read’ rating because of the subtly bitter aftertaste it left me with (which has spawned my criticisms). Still, it’s a great introduction to Pullman’s universe, and if you liked His Dark Materials, particularly that world and “mythology”, then I’m confident you’ll love La Belle Sauvage.