Tuesday, 16 January 2018
Book Review: La Belle Sauvage - Book of Dust I
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 . . .
I have been looking forward to the release of this book with quite some anticipation. And then I was looking forward to Christmas with even more anticipation because my OH forbid me to buy it myself back when it came out. I am happy to report that Christmas has come and gone and the book was worth the wait.
I have imensely enjoyed Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and though it is a few years since I last read those books, it was a delight to return to this alternate version of our world, to deamons, and to Lyra. She is just a baby in this prequel to the other series and while it is fascinating to know what life has in store for her, knowledge of His Dark Materials is not necessary in order to make sense of La Belle Sauvage, and yet I cannot help comparing the two.
La Belle Sauvage is a much darker book than its predecessors. It is harshly critical of politics run by organised religion and I can see many people belonging to such organised religions, particularly Christians, taking offence. In some ways I couldn't help see similarities between organisations sanctioned by the Magisterium (the church authority in Pullman's universe) and Nazi Germany. Children turn against their parents and teachers, and everyone lives in fear of the CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline), an agency of the Church concerned with heresy and unbelief. Pullman creates a world in which the Church should be obeyed blindly and any doubt or contradicting opinion may be punished harshly. It is a world abundant in secrecy and suspicion, where the reader can never be quite sure who to turst and instead of black and white there are shades of grey - though some of those greys are blacker than others.
It's these forces and others that our main protagonist, eleven-year old Malcolm Polstead, faces. He is an intelligent, handy, and adventurous boy the reader cannot help but like and identify with. His young age means that people explain the workings of the world to him (and by extention the reader - because though the geography of Pullman's universe is the same, the physics are different), while his curiosity draws him deeper into secrets he would be better off not knowing. He almost seems too young and pure for a place such as Pullman's Oxford, but time and again he proves that he is hardy, clever, and able to handle himself.
His gentle and kind nature make him a wonderful protector for young Lyra, whom he is smitten with from the moment he sees her. Lyra is under the protection of the nuns of Godstow Priory, where Malcolm occasionally helps out, and it becomes apparent quite early on from conversations Malcolm overhears and things he sees, that the girl is no ordinary child and in need of protection, which he is only too glad to offer. I won't go into detail about what happens as I want to keep this review spoiler free, but let it be said that the gentle, loving care he offers Lyra, as well as his relationship with his deamon Asta offer an unexpected contrast to the often harsh world he finds himself in.
There are other characters I could discuss here, but again I feel that may spoil the reading experience as some of those characters ended up surprising me in the course of the book. On the whole, I would say that La Belle Sauvage is definitely following in the footsteps of His Dark Materials, though unlike the first book of that trilogy, Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, La Belle Sauvage feels very much like the first part of a series. In spite of stuff happening, the book is very slow paced and asks more questions than it answers. In fact, I don't feel any questions have been answered at this point. The more academic, and in my opinion more interesting, plotline which focuses on the mystery of Dust, secret agencies, the workings of the Magisterium, and how Lyra is connected to it all, does not actually advance very far.
4/5 stars. The book leaves you wanting more. Sadly, there is no publication date yet for book 2, so all we can do is wait.