Book Review: La Belle Sauvage
Much like many other millennials, I'm sure, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials was a formative work of literature for me. Lyra was a brave, strong heroine, the kind that makes a mark on a young girl. So imagine my great surprise - and delight - at the release of La Belle Sauvage, first book in a companion series to His Dark Materials.
Set before the events of Northern Lights / The Golden Compass, La Belle Sauvage takes place when Lyra is a young child. The story is told primarily from the perspective of Malcolm, an enterprising young lad whose family owns an inn near the abbey which shelters Lyra from those who would seize her. Malcolm is slowly drawn into a spy ring concerned with stopping the Magisterium from gaining power. And when the Thames overflows its banks in the flood of the century, Malcolm and his companion Alice must save Lyra from the floodwaters and her pursuers by delivering her to her father.
This book is one part spy novel / political thriller, one part fantastical journey (inspired, at least in part, by Spenser's The Faerie Queene). It feels slow to start; the political intrigue takes a while to build, and the flood does not occur until the book's midpoint.
That said, there is a lot of poignant social commentary in the first half. I found the Magisterium's League of St. Alexander, an organization of student spies who can report on their teachers, to be particularly chilling. Pullman has never been subtle about his disdain for the power held by organized religion, and it's more apparent than ever here, as many of the book's secondary characters fight against the Magisterium's growing hold. We get to see the alethiometers in action here, the seeds of the speculation around Dust already being planted.
Once the action moves to the river, however, the book takes on a very different tone. It has a strange, nostalgic, almost dreamlike quality. Perhaps "ethereal" is the best word to describe it. The islands in the flood have a magic about them, sometimes overt, other times less so, and the reader gets the sense that perhaps this magic is always there but simply hidden. It can be horrifying and entrancing in equal measure, but no matter whether Malcolm and Alice are in grave peril or in a period of respite, their journey with Lyra is always captivating.
Malcolm makes a wonderful lead. While I certainly miss Lyra's spunk and attitude, Malcolm manages to break the mold of the male protagonist. I can't think of many male heroes who would be as besotted with and devoted to an infant in the same way as Malcolm cares for Lyra. He is brave, yes, and occasionally daring, but he isn't overly brash. He is a nice young man, in truth, and all the more heroic for this basic classification. Malcolm comes across as an ordinary boy put in extraordinary circumstances, to which he rises magnificently.
Alice, too, rises to meet the needs of her situation. We see very little of her in the first half, just enough to know that she and Malcolm don't get along well. But when the river floods, she steps in and forms a reluctant partnership with Malcolm for Lyra's benefit. Her prickliness fades over the course of the novel, and she exhibits the same extraordinary bravery as Malcolm - perhaps more so, given the nature of the villain.
Speaking of which, where to start with Bonneville and his hyena daemon? I've rarely seen a more terrifying villain in something which is, ostensibly, children's literature. Pullman plays up the hyena's creepy laugh and Bonneville's cruelty, even with the daemon that is a part of his soul. He is an intelligent adversary and a perseverant one at that. The children's flight from him is harrowing, to say the least, and their final confrontation with him is one of the book's most memorable scenes.
Pullman's prose is just the icing on a very tasty cake. The book is exquisitely written; it possesses the same sort of descriptive, fantastical prose that I associate with Tolkien. This style suits it well, particularly in the second half of the book where the story descends heavily into a traditional hero's journey.
This book had many expectations riding on it, given the delay since the last book and the overwhelming popularity of His Dark Materials. Suffice to say, Pullman has delivered well, and I look forward to my next return to his alternate Earth.