[One paragraph in this review contains a fairly minor spoiler. This will be warned for with bold text reading BEGIN SPOILER and END SPOILER.]
It’s a good thing His Dark Materials fans are patient. It has been a long wait — seventeen years — between the publication of The Amber Spyglass, third in Pullman’s original trilogy, and his next novel-length foray into the same fictional world. Although the trilogy closed on a deeply satisfying, conclusive note, readers were hungry for more, but, though temporarily sated by several short stories set in the same world, had in many cases given up on expecting Pullman’s long promised more substantial return to his alternate vision of Oxford. The announcement that the much-yearned-for Book of Dust was written, was a trilogy, and had a first installment ready to be published in 2017 came to many as a shock. But was it worth the wait?
The short answer is yes. La Belle Sauvage — named for the beloved canoe of Malcolm Polstead, the adventurous, eleven-year-old protagonist of this prequel story — is a charming, page-turning children’s adventure caper, with the same hints at darkness and complexity that made Pullman’s first trilogy so compelling. Where His Dark Materials was epic in scope, ranging between worlds, into the sky on the wings of witches’ dæmons or an aeronaut’s balloon, and into the depths of the land of the dead, La Belle Sauvage brings things closer to home, back to Lyra’s Oxford, in the streets, waterways and buildings that orbit around the colleges and Scholars that make the town distinctive. Lyra is at the heart of this new story, but more as a motivating figure than an active agent, as she is a newborn baby, safe from surviving Mrs Coulter’s husband’s threat to her life (as recounted in Northern Lights), but under attack from new and sinister forces. After a series of disasters, Malcolm, along with various friends and allies he picks up along the way, finds himself responsible for the newborn Lyra, swept up in both political, theological machinations and attacks both supernatural and earthly.
No matter what drew you to His Dark Materials, nor what resonated most with you about that original trilogy, you will find something to appeal in La Belle Sauvage. If what you liked most about His Dark Materials was its compulsively page-turning adventure, you will find this aplenty in Pullamn’s new book. La Belle Sauvage is in some ways a rather old-fashioned story, what with its plucky, resourceful children (Malcolm is joined by prickly, tough-as-nails Alice, the teenage kitchenhand who works in his parents’ pub), and focus on the outdoors, and on carpentry, cooking, boat-building, and other work done with the hands. If the appeal of His Dark Materials lay in Pullman’s evocative, richly-imagined alternate Oxford, you’re in for a treat. La Belle Sauvage is a feast for the senses, from the winding streets and dreaming spires of Oxford, to the rivers and waterways that run through it, and from the sound of zeppelins overheard to the parade of delicious, lovingly described hearty food served at the Trout, Malcolm’s parents’ pub. If what you were looking for was an exploration of dæmons — Pullman’s stroke of genius in His Dark Materials, the animal companions who were the conscious, physical embodiments of people’s souls — you’re definitely in luck. This new book is rich in dæmon lore, and the newborn baby Lyra (and adorable baby dæmon Pantalaimon) provides a wealth of new information about how dæmons function. If you were hoping for the return of old, familiar characters in La Belle Sauvage, you’ve got your wish — all the old favourites are back, fleshed out in greater detail in some cases, seen in a different light in others due to the book’s new protagonist. And if you’re reading the book hoping to see Pullman’s old world with new eyes, you won’t be disappointed. Malcolm and Alice are very different to Lyra and Will, but they share the same sense of curiosity and drive, and are a wonderful window into Pullman’s world — so much so that I feel a new reader could start the series with La Belle Sauvage and not lose anything from not having read His Dark Materials first.
The new book does have weaknesses, however. The most glaring, in my opinion, is its depiction of Lord Asriel, who, in His Dark Materials was an ambivalent, driven, selfish, and somewhat frightening figure, so caught up in his own ambitions that he forgot about the other people they would affect. The series was the richer for this ambivalence — readers never knew where they stood with him, and his actions were unpredictable. In La Belle Sauvage, I feel Pullman has less of a handle on him, and this results in Lord Asriel behaving with a sentimentality that seems wildly out of character. It is of course possible that his later drive and ruthless utilitarianism is the result of ten years pursuing his life’s work under the shadow of the Magisterium, but what we saw of his character in La Belle Sauvage rang false to me. END SPOILER Other characters — both new and familiar — seemed flattened and less complicated than in His Dark Materials, and the conflict that drove them seemed to divide people up in a more black and white, good and malevolent way than in Pullman’s previous work. This may of course be due in part to the change in protagonist. Lyra and Will were fundamentally untrusting characters who viewed most people with suspicion, whereas Malcolm, while watchful and observant, is a more trusting type.
These reservations aside, La Belle Sauvage is a worthy continuation of Pullman’s epic story. It’s fitting that it returns to where things all began: Lyra’s Oxford, where readers first opened the pages and read that evocative opening phrase, Lyra and her dæmon. There’s plenty to entrance new fans, while the book is stuffed with allusions, references and cameos to reward the fans who’ve been with this series of books for decades. And the good news is there’s much less of a wait for the next installment!