Book: “La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman
Publishing Info: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 2017
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .
Review: This is going to be such a hard review to write! Not only do I have drastically mixed opinions of this book, but there’s just no escaping the fact that there is no way I can be completely objective about this. As I was reading it, my husband looked over and asked about the strange smile on my face and the only way I could explain it (yes, he is one of those rare individuals who hasn’t read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy) was to compare it to reading a new Harry Potter book. It’s something you never thought would happen, so much so that you gave up wishing for it, and yet, one day, it arrives on your step and you’re once again back in this magical world, and more than than, you’re back to when you were a kid reading the series for the first time. The only word to describe the entire experience is “surreal.”
But. I did have qualms, and I think through these I was able to take off the nostalgia glasses long enough to be able to analyze the book as much outside of its connection to this beloved trilogy as I can. Here we go!
Set eleven or so years before the events of “The Golden Compass,” this is the story of Malcolm, an 11 year old boy whose family owns and operates an inn called the “Trout.” Malcolm is everything we expect from young heroic boys: smart, resourceful, and kind. If you look up the actual definition of “boy scout,” I’m pretty sure it would say “See the character of Malcolm from Philip Pullman’s “La Belle Sauvage.”
Other than caring for his beloved canoe (the name of which is where the title of the book comes from), his main duties in life are avoiding the acerbic teenager Alice who works as a dishwasher at the inn, and helping a group of nuns who live in a priory nearby. Until, that is, a mysterious baby girl named Lyra appears in the nuns’ care. Now, devoted to Lyra, Malcolm finds himself caught up in a cold war between two powerful parties both looking to determine Lyra’s future (or whether she should have one at all). Fleeing the disturbed man named Bonneville and his even more disturbing daemon, a three legged hyena, who have their own designs on the baby, Malcolm, Alice and Lyra flee during a massive flood, looking for safety and a future for this small, but important, girl.
First with the simple parts of my review. Obviously, Pullman is still the incredible author we all knew him to be. His writing is clear, concise, and compelling. While the story starts out slowly, this, too, that fans of this author should have been expecting. “The Golden Compass” itself isn’t known to have a bang of a start. And once the flood takes place, the action picks up to almost a frantic pace, changing dramatically into an almost “Odyssey” like tale with Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra drifting from one mystical and dangerous island to another. This aspect of the story was a complete surprise to me, and I very much enjoyed the entire sequence and the various types of magical elements that these scenes added to Lyra’s world.
Further, his main character, Malcolm, is a strong addition to the cast. This was probably the biggest challenge: how do you create a new child hero that will hold his own when compared to Lyra and Will, and notably not be the same as either of those two characters? Malcolm has much of Will’s earnestness and good will, and, if Will’s childhood hadn’t been flooded with the darkness it was, he and Malcolm may have turned into very similar boys. Malcolm is essentially the result of a good childhood and good parents. In some ways he could be read as a bit one dimensional in this goodness, but as the story progress, specifically the last half of the story, his character is tried and tested enough that I think he can avoid this accusation. Malcolm confronts real horrors and real choices, and while he holds true to his “boy scout” mentality, he is also clearly very much changed by the end of the story.
The second biggest hurdle faced by Pullman was how to handle characters we are all familiar with from the first trilogy. It would be all to easy for these known characters to overwhelm a story like this and wash out the new characters being introduced. For the most part, I think he handled this very well. The cameo appearance of many of these character were like bright jewels to run into, but at the same time, I was satisfied enough with the main story not to crave their absence. There were a few moments, like a very brief scene with Mrs. Coulter, that I felt verged a bit too close to fan service for my taste. Was it really necessary to this story that she appear on the page? But these are pretty minor quibbles, and I thought Pullman mostly avoided any pitfalls in this area.
Now, my concerns. There are two that really stand out: Bonneville as a villain and the aspects of the story caught up in him, and Alice’s character and role in this story. We’ll start with Bonneville as I think he leads nicely to my second point.
Bonneville is introduced as a criminal with a pretty nasty past, one specifically dealing with his imprisonment for some type of sexual crime that Mrs. Coulter testified against. So, we can make some assumptions there. Then, throughout this story, we see Bonneville terrorizing and coercing the women around him, notably Alice and a few of the nuns. And towards the end of the story, this culminates in a very horrible way.
Look, Bonneville himself, and his creepy hyena, were scary villains. They served their purpose as a persistent and unpredictable terror following close behind the children. But the fact that his danger is tied up in sexual violence read as strange, especially with regards to the choices made with Alice’s role in the plot, and, more importantly, with all of the work Pullman did in his first trilogy to reclaim the importance of the body and to write strong, complex female characters.
At one point, early in their flight, Alice accuses Malcolm of only bringing her along to change the diapers of Lyra. And, in the end, this is most all she does. She’s clearly a smart and competent character, but she is given very little to do in this story other than care for Lyra and wait while Malcolm saves the day (repeatedly). Which all just makes the sexual violence towards the end all the more disturbing and off putting.
I’m not sure exactly how this trilogy is planned to play out, but I read somewhere that at least one of the next books will deal with Lyra as an adult. If that’s the case, are Malcolm and Alice only the main characters here? And if that’s the case, this last violent scene plays all the worse. I’m not convinced it is necessary, other than to push Malcolm into action (won’t go into that aspect of it, just look up “fridging female characters” and you’ll get my point), and I’m worried that it will be left as is, with no real followup in subsequent stories.
Ultimately, the whole thing was just confusing to me. Why was this choice made? What purpose was it serving? And, from an author like Pullman who gave us such excellent characters as Lyra and Mary Malone, why was Alice written so simplistically and then, even worse, combined with these story choices? I honestly can’t understand it.
As I said at the top, I closed this book with some very mixed feelings. I can’t help but love the fact that there’s a new entry into this world, and I very much enjoyed Malcolm and much of the action of this story. And there’s never an argument to be had about Pullman’s mastery of writing. But some of the choices with the villain and the themes brought up with him were very unsettling. What’s more, the original trilogy simply had more to say. And very little of that philosophical underpinning can be found in this book, leaving us only with a very gruesome and largely unaddressed sexual violence theme. But, obviously, I’ll be back for the next to in the series, and hopefully some of this book’s action will be addressed there. And if not, hopefully Pullman will once again find his footing with the larger questions that made the first trilogy so fascinating.
If you’re fa fan of his first series, I don’t even need to tell you to check this out, because I’m sure you will. If you’re a new reader, I strongly recommend reading the fist trilogy before picking this up; not only is it much better, but it provides much needed context for a lot of what is presented in this book.
Rating 7: A wonderful return to a beloved world with an excellent new character in Malcolm, but one that is marred by some jarring writing decisions.
“La Belle Sauvage” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Alternate History in 2017” and “Most Anticipated Speculative Fiction Books of 2017.”
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