This is the first book in a new trilogy by Philip Pullman. It’s actually the prequel to the His Dark Materials series, which included The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. I read them many years ago and to be truthful, I remember almost nothing about them. I do remember that I enjoyed them, however. From what I gather, the main character in the His Dark Materials series is Lyra. Again, I don’t remember. Well, in The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Lyra is just a babe.
The story follows 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead who helps out at The Trout, the inn that is owned by his parents. Malcolm and his daemon Astra tend to hear all of the local gossip, including scandals and intrigue, including news about the oppressive religious authority which has, as of late, become more powerful and perhaps more deadly. A creepy Hitler-Youth-like organization called the League of St. Alexander that enlists children to spy on their parents and teachers begins to take hold in the school, and as it becomes stronger, teachers begin to disappear along with some students’ parents.
So one day, Malcolm comes across a strange message in an acorn and eventually discovers the person for whom the message was intended. This person, who we can think of as kind of a spy, asks Malcolm to keep his eyes and ears open and report anything of interest to her – in other words, she enlists him as a spy.
Malcolm also spends a good amount of his time running errands for the nuns directly across the river. It’s at the Priory that Malcolm encounters the baby Lyra, who had been given to the nuns for safekeeping. There is an entire scandal that goes along with Lyra’s birth. Anyway, Malcolm is immediately taken by Lyra and become increasingly attached to the infant as the days progress.
But as he soon learns, there are dark forces afoot and they seem to be centered on the baby Lyra. One of these include the CCD – a branch of the Magisterium which is an oppressive religious sect vying to be the dominant religion which doesn’t seem to have any problems with making people disappear; and the other including villainous scientists who have their own agenda in regards to Lyra, which we are not yet privy to. I found it interesting that we had both villains and heroes on both the religious side and the secular side so, in this way, neither of them was singled out.
What follows then is a harrowing and gripping adventure as Malcolm and Alice (a scullery maid) along with their daemons try to stay one step ahead of their enemies to keep the infant safe (especially from the malevolent scientist Gerard Bonneville and his hyena daemon). Without giving too much away, let me just say that a good part of the novel took place in Malcolm’s trusty canoe, which he had named “La Belle Sauvage”, hence the title of this volume. So in this way, the book is part spy novel, part adventure novel, part coming-of-age story which revolves around two children and one infant, all of which are in true peril.
What I Liked
Now Daemons are one of the coolest part of Philip Pullman’s novels. If you’re unfamiliar with Pullman’s daemons, they are a kind of a supernatural creature — like part of your soul — that appear as talking animals and accompany you where you go. In fact, if you wander away too far from your daemon, it results in severe physical pain. I’m not sure if it would kill you if you move away too much, but I think so. In this world, everyone has a daemon but children’s daemons can shape-shift into other animals.
For instance, Malcolm’s daemon Astra switches into a cat, a bird, a month, an owl, just to name a few. I kind of thought of the daemons as an extension of a person’s soul. It’s also interesting to note that if a person is asleep or unconscious, so is their daemon. Once people become an adult, however, the daemon settle down into a permanent shape, which is a reflection of the individual’s personality, much like our personality settles down once we reach adulthood. The primary characters of Alice, Malcolm and Lyra are young enough that their daemons often change form, which made the story extra interesting.
I thought Bonneville was the ultimate terrifying villain. He was absolutely chilling — the kind of evil mastermind that gives little kids nightmares, especially as he, along with his equally frightening daemon, relentlessly pursued Malcolm, Alice and Lyra over the course of several days. I thought he was perfect for this story.
I also felt that Malcolm was a marvelous protagonist: brave, protective, loyal, resourceful, and wise beyond his years. Though only a child himself, I was especially impressed with his overpowering need to put Lyra above everything else and do whatever was necessary to ensure his safety.
It’s funny, after one especially harrowing part of the book, I recall Malcolm saying something to the effect of, “I’m way too young to be going through all this.” I had to agree. But he was definitely up to the task, and he was always ready to fiercely protect the baby. This eleven-year-old boy ended up being a larger than life characters in this book.
I also really liked the theme of conflict between the oppressive religious authoritarianism and the basic right of human freedom, a recurrent theme, if I’m not mistaken, in other Pullman novels. I thought this conflict was well presented in the book and liked the fact that Pullman presented both the good and the evil sides of it.
What I Didn’t Like
The first part of the novel consisted of heavy world building and backstory, so it did seem kind of slow at the get-go. But once the setting was laid out, then things really take off as we move from one nail-biting experience to another.
Another thing I didn’t care for was the abrupt ending. I’m not a fan of cliffhangers, and this book did kind of end on one. Not terribly so, but enough that I found it annoying. For instance, we really don’t find out the reason that everyone is after Lyra. All we know is that it has something to do with this illusive Dust. The ending scene felt more like a momentary reprieve rather than the conclusion of a book, which didn’t feel all that satisfying to me.
This is a remarkable addition to the His Dark Materials series, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this series is going to go. La Belle Sauvage was one of those books that had my heart racing on more than one occasion and that I just couldn’t put down. Pullman’s storytelling ability is unsurpassed, in my opinion, and I found this a thrilling ride.
I loved the strong world-building and character development, and felt that this story really came to life for me with the vibrant characters, the exciting adventures and the beautiful narrative. Well written with strong characters and a marvelous sense of place, La Belle Sauvage is a captivating story of good and evil that will linger long after the last word is read.
This book had it all: spies, devastating floods of biblical proportions, life-and-death boat races, gentle nuns, intolerant and inquisition-like religious organizations, brave heroes and heroines fighting for freedom and liberty, brave heroes and heroines fighting for their lives, creepy mausoleums, nefarious villains, mad scientists and even supernatural creatures such as witches and faeries.
I ended up loving this book, in spite of the rather abrupt ending and will definitely be reading the next installment in the series. I just hope we don’t have to wait too long. I ended up giving this book 4 stars.