Book Review: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust Volume 1) by Philip Pullman

Many of us, no doubt, have waited what felt like a life time for this book. The first of a follow up series to Pullman’s best-selling series His Dark Materials consisting of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Announced earlier in 2017, it became the release of the year. It’s the first in a new trilogy set in the HDM world. Here is my humble review.

The story is set some 12 years before the opening of Northern Lights / The Golden Compass. Lyra is a baby. While that might surprise some readers that she is not the centre of the story, it allows for this volume of The Book of Dust to stride forward in its own right. Infant Lyra Belacqua can’t do anything for herself, but she is the centre of the story in all the ways we might expect. Her parents are here and we meet some other characters from the original trilogy too.

The protagonist is Malcolm – a young boy from a pub on the river Thames. On the other side of the river is a convent. One day, a group of men arrive in the pub and start asking Malcolm questions. Does he know the nuns? Yes, he does. Was he aware they were recently handed care of a baby? Is the baby a boy or girl? What is the child’s name? They’re not the first to ask and following the arrival of some sinister looking men who later arrest a man on the bridge, Malcolm gets sucked into a conspiracy.

I was initially surprised to learn before reading this that Lyra would be a baby. I wondered how and if it would work, to have this important young girl unable to do anything for herself. But as I said above, introducing us to the prequel in this way allowed Malcolm to tell his story. It also allowed Pullman to show us the world. Too many prequels focus on filling in the gaps, but this is a story in its own right. Pullman has also been astute in limiting our contact with the other familiar characters – especially Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel. They feature but their appearance is as secondary characters.

We are also introduced to new heroes and villains, among them is a new branch of the church, a sinister and solitary figure chasing Lyra and a feisty young nun. The second half of the book concerns a flooding of the River Thames, giving the second half of the novel a different feel – moving from mystery thriller to action piece.

This is nothing like I expected it to be and everything I hoped it would be. It’s not a page turner (neither was the original HDM to be honest) but it is a solid, gripping and well-crafted tale set in a deeply connected and well-constructed universe. In many ways it’s a very different tale from the originals and that has disappointed some.


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