Review: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust Volume 1)

Twenty years in the waiting, and Philip Pullman has started a new trilogy set “not before, or after, but alongside” Lyra’s adventures in tracking dust and overthrowing the system in the His Dark Materials Trilogy. It’s been very eagerly anticipated, and I have now finished it, and mulled a little, and am able to write my review!

Before we do the summary start, I just have to say that this book is bloody huge. Well, it felt like it. I didn’t think it would be quite so big because my brain forgot that new releases were hardbacks. it will probably be an entirely reasonably sized paperback. But, in my infinite wisdom, I picked it up before going to walk round some fancy gardens, because I wasn’t sure the shop would still be open when I got home. Bit of a mistake really. That being said, the cover is lovely. I mean, the dust jacket is fair to middling, but the actual cover under that IS GLITTERY. I think it’s meant to be dust? Who knows, or cares. It’s lovely.

Malcolm Polstead works in his parents pub on the edge of the river at Godstow. He likes helping out at the pub, talking to the scholars and travellers who make their way through to Oxford, learning things all the while. He also loves going over to the Priory to help the nuns. But he is happiest when he and his daemon Asta are on the water in their canoe, la Belle Sauvage.But then three men come to the pub and ask about a baby. Then Malcom sees something mysterious. And a baby named Lyra moves into the Priory. And suddenly, Malcolm’s simple life of school, home and canal becomes a lot more complicated.

When I first heard this was going to be “neither a sequel nor a prequel but alongside” (I paraphrase), I was expecting that maybe it would take place in London while teenage Lyra is off in the North – you know, the resistance in England maybe? Then I found the “extract” which was Lord Asriel saying “I’m the father of that baby in the priory” and aha that’s how they’re going to go. So, young Malcom is incredibly smart and he manages to get himself a teacher in Oxford aletheiometer scholar Dr Hannah Relf. The viewpoint does switch to Hannah and some other people including Farder Coram (!!), but it’s mostly Malcolm and the simple way he is interested in learning everything. There’s an adorable bit where he misheard something and looks up the definition in his dictionary and reads for “aurora” instead and then continues to use aurora for the rest of the book.

It was good. But then, the straight awesomeness that is the His Dark Materials series is a tough act to follow. There’s the political intrigue, the innocent point of view of the child, Dust has just been discovered, it all feels very start of dictatorship with the shadow of fear hanging over all the adults do. And then there’s a huge flood and all sorts of weird stuff happens to the kids on the canoe. Seriously, at one point I felt like I’d slipped seaslessly from the flood waters covering Southern England into the water beyond the Eastern Seas where only the Dawn Treader has voyaged. That bit was weird, even for a Materials book. Witches, and a way of crossing realities with a very sharp knife I can accept as part of this world. I’m not convinced about the weird stuff that happened in that section.

So I feel this is more haphazard than the narrative in my head which summarizes as it’s good, but not nearly as good as His Dark Materials. But I never expected this new book to be as good as the original trilogy. For a book that’s not really about Lyra, it’s really about Lyra. But I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the conspiracy and adults underestimating children and the world, I’m glad we have more in the universe. I’m curious about what happens in the next book, but I suppose we have to wait a few years for that!

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