Review: La Belle Sauvage by Philip PullmanThe Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust, Volume 1) by Philip Pullman
Series: The Book of Dust #1
Published by Random House Children's Books on June 4, 2019
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 480
Format: Audiobook
Source: Purchased

Philip Pullman returns to the parallel world of His Dark Materials--now an HBO original series starring Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, and Lin-Manuel Miranda--to expand on the story of Lyra, “one of fantasy’s most indelible heroines” (The New York Times Magazine).
Don’t miss Volume II of The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth!
Malcolm Polstead and his daemon, Asta, are used to overhearing news and the occasional scandal at the inn run by his family. But during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm finds a mysterious object—and finds himself in grave danger.

Inside the object is a cryptic message about something called Dust; and it’s not long before Malcolm is approached by the spy for whom this message was actually intended. When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, he begins to notice suspicious characters everywhere: the explorer Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; a gyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a daemon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl—just a baby—named Lyra.
Lyra is at the center of a storm, and Malcolm will brave any peril, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through it.
“Too few things in our world are worth a seventeen-year wait: The Book of Dust is one of them.” —The Washington Post
“The book is full of wonder. . . . Truly thrilling.” —The New York Times
“People will love the first volume of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy with the same helpless vehemence that stole over them when The Golden Compass came out.” —Slate

The first in a new trilogy, La Belle Sauvage is as a prequel to the iconic His Dark Materials series. If you haven’t given the original series a whirl, let me stop you now – go read The Golden Compass. There’s really no point reading La Belle Sauvage unless you’ve read the His Dark Materials books.

Fans of the original novels will be satisfied by the return to Pullman’s alternate Oxford, England, where the Church’s iron-fisted rule is challenged by the growth of science – and its coexistence with strange magics. The most striking? Daemons, animal-shaped beings that accompany people and are in fact part of them, like a tangible soul.

Everyone has a daemon, and Malcolm Polstead is no exception. Malcolm is a smart, inquisitive boy who works hard at his family’s inn and helps out the nuns of the Godstow Priory across the river. When he’s not working, Malcolm explores the waterways in his trusty canoe, La Belle Sauvage. Life is rather ordinary until the nuns take in a mysterious baby girl named Lyra…

Lyra doesn’t actually do much, being a baby and all, but the action revolves around her. Malcolm becomes Lyra’s instant protector, and loves her fiercely as if she were his sister. But the Church and their Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) is after Lyra, and other shady characters will stop at nothing to get their hands on her. When a flood of biblical proportions threatens the Priory – and Lyra’s safety – Malcolm teams up with his grudging colleague Alice to rescue Lyra. The unlikely trio take to the waterways in Malcolm’s beloved canoe, but the rising tides are far from the only danger they’ll face.

Compared to Lyra, Malcolm is something of a goody two-shoes with too few flaws, but he grew on me.

Malcolm is a likeable enough protagonist and a well-crafted character. He’s smart and curious, loyal to his parents and the nuns, and fiercely protective of his loved ones. Compared to Lyra, Malcolm is something of a goody two-shoes (isn’t everyone?) with too few flaws. He did grow on me, especially once his mettle is tested by encounters with the CCD. Malcolm’s political consciousness develops as he experiences the encroachment of the Church into his school, as students are pressured to join a league of informers who rat out anyone who steps away from the approved teachings of the Church or dares to break the increasingly harsh rules imposed by the CCD.

Although this world is familiar from the earlier trilogy, it feels quite different this go around. Malcolm’s life is completely unlike Lyra’s in the Golden Compass: rather than living at Oxford among the scholars, Malcolm lives and works with his parents like a normal school kid.  His life and adventures are much more mundane. Frankly, I wanted just a little more excitement.  Had there been even a few more chapters from Hannah’s perspective, a scholar who takes Malcolm under her wing, I think I would’ve enjoyed the story more. Hannah’s studies of the alethiometer results in her unwittingly involvement in spycraft, and in Malcolm’s life.  I can’t help but feel her character was somewhat wasted.

Plot-wise, La Belle Sauvage has a slow build, but with the arrival of the flood come some truly thrilling scenes. Michael Sheen highlights Malcolm and Alice’s terror on the river with his incredible performance as the audiobook narrator. I can absolutely see why this audiobook production won so many accolades, and I recommend it unequivocally. La Belle Sauvage itself, however, is another story.

I recommend this book for fans of His Dark Materials, but a word of warning: this is not Lyra’s story, nor is it a particularly magical one. If you expect those things, you will be disappointed.