The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
I found out Philip Pullman was releasing a new series to follow up His Dark Materials only a couple of months ago. In anticipation, I decided to reread the series by listening to the audio books. Unfortunately, everybody checking out audiobooks from my local library had the same idea at the same time, as there was a mile long wait list for The Golden Compass. I was, however, able to get a hold of The Subtle Knife. I was impressed with the reading (I’m going to have to go back and listen to the others), and I was reminded just how much I enjoyed this series.
The pending release of the first volume of The Book of Dust also brought about the re-relase of Once Upon a Time in the North, a novella about Lee Scoresby’s early days. I had been looking for it for a few years and was finally able to read it. I also found the e-story The Collectors. I was now really ready for The Book of Dust, and ran out to get it the day after its release.
I also jumped it ahead in my TBR list because I was so excited. While I didn’t know this book was coming for very long, I was as ready to read it as if I had waited years. I found it as beautiful and dark as I hoped. It has an epic journey, a vile villain, young heroes, and mischievous fairies.
If you haven’t read His Dark Materials, I would recommend reading it before beginning this series. I think you could read it without that background, but there is a lot that won’t make sense. Also, if you haven’t read His Dark Materials, stop what you are doing this moment and read it because your life is incomplete without it.
According to Pullman, The Book of Dust further develops the story of His Dark Materials. La Belle Sauvage tells the story of how Lyra comes to live in Jordan College at Oxford. Lyra is a six-month-old baby, already in hiding with a prophecy looming over her. A villain and a giant flood endanger her hiding place. In order for a six-month-old to flee and get caught up in an adventure, she needs help. This comes in the form of Malcolm, an 11-year-old boy, and 16-year-old Alice.
I mention the ages of Malcolm and Alice because it is important to understanding their characters. The beginning of the story references their initial conflict with one another. They are both young and innocent, but they are at very different stages in their innocence. Malcolm has grown up in a secure environment with the comfort of his parents and still sees the world in a fairly rosy light, while Alice is a little older and has known a harsher reality: “Lines of self-discontent were already gathering on her forehead and around her mouth.”
Malcolm’s world begins to change when he is introduced to baby Lyra and is drawn into aiding an organization opposed to the religious authorities who have taken over the government. The villain, Bonneville, provides his character with the most brutal education in the darker side of humanity. Initially, Malcolm is slow to understand what most of the grownups already know about Bonneville. The man himself seems nice, while his troubling hyena dæmon shows his true nature. Alice, in her innocence, is also slow to understand this.
Alice tells Malcolm of her first encounter with Bonneville, and Malcolm doesn’t understand Alice’s blushes as she talks about Bonneville or even “what a grown man would want with a solitary girl at night.” Alice does understand that part, and her realization of Bonneville’s nature comes when she learns his interest is not genuine. She is angry with herself for not realizing it sooner in the same way she is resentful of Malcolm’s innocence. While Malcolm has come to the conclusion that Bonnville is evil, his idea of evil doesn’t yet go beyond the idea that he means harm to Lyra as revenge against her parents. Alice has begun to understand another level of evil.
La Belle Sauvage deals with some darker issues in a way that I think works for younger readers. Many younger readers would have a similar perspective to Malcolm, and may struggle to understand just the way he does. Still, these books are a lot for young readers to take in and process. Malcolm learns many terrible things on his journey, and not everything can be set right at the end of the book.
In addition to complex themes, there is an epic adventure. La Belle Sauvage is the name of Malcolm’s trusty canoe. She becomes one of the stars their epic journey, saving the heroes from many of the dangers that hunt them. The characters encounter friends and foes on their journey, and they learn that sometimes it is hard to know who is which.
Even knowing this story won’t pick up exactly where it left off, I am looking forward to the next book in the series. Hopefully, the wait won’t be too long. In the meantime, I have a few more audiobooks to listen to.