Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a literary rockstar. It’s a powerful presence, rhapsodised over for both its thrilling story and it’s brutal take-down of religious fanaticism. Now, 17 years since the original trilogy ended, Pullman is returning us to Lyra’s world with La Belle Sauvage, the first in The Book of Dust trilogy, which is set 10 years before His Dark Materials. It centres on a young boy, Malcolm Polstead, who takes it upon himself to protect a baby girl from forces that wish her harm. The baby, of course, is Lyra.
La Belle Sauvage is no Northern Lights, but it isn’t trying to be. Where Northern Lights whisked Lyra off on a dangerous tour of her world, La Belle Sauvage remains firmly in Oxford and focuses more on small-scale corruptions and mundane lives. Malcolm is no wild, brave, semi-magical hero, he’s the son of a couple of pub owners who goes to school and likes books. His heroism is something that comes on slowly and consciously – he chooses to take a stand in spite of his own fears, as do all of the book’s heroes.
Fans of His Dark Materials may be surprised by how little cross-over there is between La Belle Sauvage and the original trilogy. Lyra features heavily, but she’s a baby. Nonetheless, the infant Pantalaimon still manages to steal the show from the book’s other dæmons. Aside from what are essentially cameos from a handful of HDM characters, La Belle Sauvage is its own beast, and it’s more interested in sketching out the beginnings of the Magisterium’s control and corruption. It also explores the Magisterium’s opponents, and hints, intriguingly, that these ‘goodies’ are capable of horrors almost equal to those of the villains in order to win.
But while a lot is hinted at, very little is satisfactorily explored – perhaps because this is only the first of a trilogy. The book splits into two halves: The Trout, and The Flood. Most of what is explored in the first, including many characters, is forgotten in the second. Most of the fantasy action takes place in the second half, when the book suddenly feels like it inhabits the magical/realistic world of HDM again, but the two halves could have tied together more smoothly. It would have been nice to spend more time in the wonderfully weird land of The Flood, which is classic Pullman – he takes something ordinary, and turns it into something fantastical.
Pullman has never talked-down to his readers, and he doesn’t start here. La Belle Sauvage is also a lot more adult than HDM, with sexual abuse featuring as a sub-plot. He’s also still the master of the simple description, painting Malcolm and his world as clearly as if they were in the room with you. Some of the book’s themes, points and observations will stay with you for days.
The book ends with a ‘to be continued’, but it feels less like the first part of a new series than an enjoyable but unnecessary prequel to Lyra’s story, before Pullman gets down to the real meat of The Book of Dust in its subsequent instalments.