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La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
4.5
Book Name: La Belle Sauvage
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher(s): Knopf Books for Young Readers (US) Penguin Random House Children's (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Release Date: October 19, 2017

How many times have you read something that made you gasp aloud? I’ve cried pretty liberally over events—Dobbie’s death and burial (HP and the Deathly Hallows), the duel between Ammar and Rodrigo (Lions of Al-Rassan), Frodo’s departure for the Blessed Lands (Return of the King)—but I can’t remember gasping aloud at a single word uttered by a villain before I read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage. If for no other reason, I recommend this terrific prequel to His Dark Materials because disgraced scientist Gerard Bonneville must be among the scariest antagonists ever written. If you like your heart to race, this is the book for you. (Although lovers of heart-pumping action should know, the book’s first half is a slow burn, or more properly, a drizzle. Pullman takes his time, slowly dripping the tension into the narrative before unleashing a downpour of nail-biting drama about midway through.)

La Belle Sauvage is the name of a canoe owned by 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead, an intelligent, empathetic, and uniquely virtuous boy who uses this boat to rescue a baby named Lyra from a terrible flood and a murderer’s plot. In the alternate universe where the Book of Dust and His Dark Materials take place, every human is accompanied by an external manifestation of his or her personality (or his or her soul) called a daemon. Daemons assume the form of animals and are always the opposite sex of their human counterpart (I haven’t read Lyra’s Oxford, the sequel to His Dark Materials, so I don’t know if Pullman ever addresses transgender individuals and how their daemons might manifest).

Children’s daemons change species with the child’s emotional state, while adults’ daemons settle into one animal and remain that way for life. Gerard Bonneville, an attractive, charismatic man, has an ugly, vicious hyena for a daemon. Bonneville is a genius, a rapist, and a murderer whose self-hatred and psychopathic relentlessness are equally appalling and frightening. La Belle Sauvage the canoe is beautiful and wild and whole; Bonneville and his hyena are beautiful, savage, and irredeemably broken.

It’s been a decade or more since I read The Golden Compass, the brilliant first book in His Dark Materials, which follows a 10-year-old Lyra on an Arctic adventure where she encounters talking bears and foxes, witches, and an evil plot to separate children from their daemons (having the same effect as a lobotomy). Since my daughter reached Lyra’s age, I’d wanted to read His Dark Materials with her, but my copies have disappeared (I must have lent them to someone; since my desk sports a tall stack of books borrowed years ago, I can’t blame anyone else for not returning mine). Hence, a visit to Amazon turned up Book of Dust, which I preordered but didn’t get round to reading until December. I recall loving The Golden Compass (and liking the other books, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), but La Belle Sauvage was a near-perfect book.

In my initial, hot out of my head, review on Goodreads, I’d noted that one minor flaw is that Malcolm is unrealistically virtuous for a preteen boy. Other than a single spat with a schoolmate that occurs offstage, he never does anything wrong. He never disobeys or disrespects his parents; he always does his homework and chores; he is unfailingly kind, helpful, and honest. However, on reflection, I don’t see Malcolm’s virtue as a storytelling flaw but rather as a deliberate contrast to Bonneville’s wickedness.

Bonneville, a convicted rapist, seduces teenage girls and young women to gain information and access to Lyra, whom he wants to kidnap and possibly murder. Pullman presents the Lyra stories as atheist (or agnostic) allegory, and the use of archetypal characters is consistent with that approach. However, the opposition between good and evil in La Belle Sauvage is starker than it is in His Dark Materials. In that series, Lyra is a mischievous wild child whose willingness to break rules and taboos is central to her ability to foil the schemes of her enemies. She also discovers that the motivations and tactics of her allies are neither pure nor honorable, and that good and evil are labels devised by whoever is in authority rather than absolute and independent features of morality.

In Sauvage, Pullman gives us a very clear picture of evil and good, showing us that while the universe is composed of shades of gray, the ends of the spectrum still consist of absolute darkness and light. (One content note is that while Malcolm is 11, this is not children’s literature. Book of Dust is classified as teen/young adult, and parents should be aware that Malcolm witnesses both consensual sex and a rape, and there is some graphic violence.)

A testament to Pullman’s skill as a storyteller is the fact that La Belle Sauvage is incredibly suspenseful, even though it’s a prequel featuring characters who reappear in other books set later in the world’s chronology. We know infant Lyra will survive the flight from Bonneville because in The Golden Compass, she’s 10-years-old. We know Malcolm will survive too, because in Lyra’s Oxford, he’s an adult. Nevertheless, I was on the edge of my seat once the flood waters bore away Malcolm, Lyra, and a teenage girl named Alice in the canoe, with Bonneville in hot pursuit. The threesome journey through a watery hell-scape, beset by freezing rain, conniving schoolboys, secret police, malicious nuns, and the dead.

Although the storytelling in the first half is slower paced (the calm before the storm), there is still plenty of dramatic tension. Malcolm witnesses the kidnapping of an agent of Orchard Street, the secret organization set up in opposition to an authoritarian religious order that controls the British government. He then learns the same man was murdered by the Church’s secret police. He befriends Lyra’s father and meets her mother, both of whom play major roles in the later series. We also learn of the workings of the alethiometer (i.e., the ‘Golden Compass’), a mechanical seer that can be used to divine answers about the future or other unknowns. All these worldbuilding features are fascinating and will doubtless become important as the next volumes in the Book of Dust explore the mysterious Rusakov field, the object of Gerard Bonneville’s research and the reason for his obsession with Lyra.

La Belle Sauvage has set a very high bar for these next volumes. I’m really looking forward to seeing how they measure up.

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La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman, 10.0 out of 10 based on 1 rating
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