Updated on November 1, 2017
42. ‘The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage’ by Philip Pullman
I’ve been waiting for The Book of Dust for a long time. Of course, you know this, because I’ve been banging on about it for quite a few months now! Earlier this week I went to the midnight launch of the book, and I spent the next two days reading it. My verdict: I did not love it.
[I’m keeping this review as spoiler-free as possible, but if you don’t want any hints about what goes on, I’d stop reading now.]
La Belle Sauvage – the first volume of the new Book of Dust trilogy – is set before the events of His Dark Materials, and it features our heroine, Lyra, as a baby. She is placed in the secret care of some nuns in a priory in the Oxford countryside, but because of the prophecies about her there are many different parties (including religious authorities) who are on her tail. This book is mainly told from the perspective of Malcolm, an eleven-year-old boy who lives in the Trout, the pub across the river from the priory where Lyra is being hidden, and who owns a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. Malcolm visits baby Lyra often and falls in love with her, so when shady characters start asking questions, and the worsening weather threatens serious flooding, he realises that he might have to step in to protect her.
At its core, La Belle Sauvage is a pretty good adventure story. It has many of Pullman’s trademarks: likeable young characters, coming-of-age elements, fast-paced action scenes and dollops of intrigue. There are secret societies; discussions about philosophy, science and Dust; and complexity in the fact that not all the religious characters are ‘bad’. I did get through it in just two days (and it’s a beast of a book), so I can’t accuse it of being boring. However, I do have a few problems with it.
The first is to do with my personal preference. I’ve always thought the His Dark Materials trilogy got better as it progressed: Northern Lights feels most like a children’s adventure story to me (a very good one!), while The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass deal with multiple worlds and grander themes. With La Belle Sauvage we go back to before the events of HDM and that, by necessity, means that this is a smaller story. Yes, there is adventure, but we’re not talking world-ending or god-killing. That’s fine – this book isn’t pretending to be more than it is – but it’s not really what appeals to me.
The second problem – which might seem like a contradiction – is that the story is too big. Here I’m talking about length. This story has a smaller scope, and so I think it would have worked better as a short story or novella; I think it would have been far more powerful that way. A lot of time is spent describing feeding and changing baby Lyra (maybe this is to create a contrast between mundane reality and magic, but I found it a bit tedious after a while), and there are also extended scenes of dialogue. Characters ask every possible question they can of each other, so sometimes it feels like the dialogue is ticking boxes (Character X has learned Bit-of-Information Y – Tick!) rather than trying to be natural or engaging. And with all this talking going on, there are plenty of sentences like “Character X explained to Character Z what he had heard the day before”. It’s all very neat and accurate, but it’s not fun to read, which I find strange because Pullman does dialogue so much better in HDM. All in all, I felt like La Belle Sauvage could use serious editing to lose the flab and give it some real punch.
My final problem with the book was the plot. I thought it started out quite strongly: Pullman creates a really appealing world populated with intriguing characters, and he sets up lots of questions to be answered later. However, I thought it rambled a bit towards the end. With the rising floodwater, magic begins to leak into the world, but it feels a little out of place. Certain episodes (eg: the chapter ‘The Enchanted Island’) didn’t really advance the plot and, I thought, could have been done away with altogether. For me, this magic also doesn’t sit right with the magic in His Dark Materials. We know from that trilogy that certain magical things (eg: ghosts, witches) are part of Lyra’s world, but the main focus of those books is science. It always felt like there might be a physical, scientific explanation for the magic in HDM, but La Belle Sauvage goes full fairytale at certain points, which doesn’t fit with the more realistic opening or the more ‘scientific’ trilogy it precedes.
With all this criticism, it might seem like I hate the book. I don’t – there is a lot to like about it. La Belle Sauvage is a pretty solid adventure story with some really excellent writing. (Case in point: “Malcolm felt a shiver of fear that was almost audible, like the tip of a drumstick drawn across a cymbal.”) What’s more, the book is garnering praise from critics and readers alike, so plenty of people out there do think it’s great. Perhaps there are underlying reasons why I didn’t love it. Maybe I went in with sky-high expectations that the book could never meet. Maybe I read it too quickly because I was excited and didn’t appreciate all the nuance. Maybe I just thought it would be something else entirely. Ultimately I really wanted to like it, and I’m really glad that other people do, but I’m a bit disappointed by La Belle Sauvage.
“And then there was the word Dust, with a capital D, as if is wasn’t ordinary dust but something special.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.