Philip Pullman is a brilliant writer. I loved His Dark Materials trilogy when it came out and I especially loved the books’ bewitching protagonist, Lyra. So it was with real anticipation that I began reading Pullman’s eagerly-awaited Volume One of his new Book of Dust trilogy. Pullman calls La Belle Sauvage an ‘equal’ rather than a prequel and maybe it will be once the trilogy is complete. For now, however, this first book reads like a prequel. Lyra is a baby and this is the story of how she ends up at Oxford’s (fictional) Jordan College – where she is at the beginning of His Dark Materials.
LA BELLE SAUVAGE
Though Lyra’s at the centre of the story, the book is really about young Malcolm Polstead. He’s eleven and an honest and honourable hero who will do whatever it takes to protect her. And she needs protecting. In Malcolm’s hitherto calm and regulated world (his parents own a pub, The Trout, outside Oxford) menacing forces are at work. When a flood of Biblical proportions rages through the town he saves Lyra and takes to his canoe, La Belle Sauvage. Malcolm and his obstreperous teenage friend, Alice, must then embark on a perilous journey downstream to London.
PLEASANT BUT SOMETIMES FRUSTRATING
Though a pleasant read, at times I found the book frustrating. There were so many bits that could have been so much more. Unlike His Dark Materials, which introduced readers to a rich, complex world, Malcolm’s world feels less compelling. Sometimes I found the story slow going and with only occasional tense bits. Being a baby Lyra needs a lot of feeding and changing and most of the female characters spend their time doing domestic work. They often felt two-dimensional and Mrs Coulter, who was so riveting in the previous trilogy (and has a brief cameo here), failed to grab me. I love Pullman’s language though and the way he creates recognisable, magical variations of our world. That was satisfying. Malcolm is a likeable hero and there were enough layers and dramatic incidents to keep me going to the end. My fingers are now crossed for the next book.