Three miles up the river Thames from the centre of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their only business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.
– Opening sentence
When Philip Pullman announced that he was releasing The Book of Dust, I was beyond excited. I first read the original His Dark Materials trilogy during my teenage years and, like many others, immediately fell in love. It is one of the few series that I regularly go back to, and each time I discover something new that I either missed or mistook.
Such is my love for His Dark Materials, that I purposely avoided watching the film adaptation (The Golden Compass, 2007), because I knew not even the most talented of production crews would be able to reproduce the detailed and vivid imagery I hold dear in my own head (Indeed, the film was torn apart by an army of loyal readers).
Despite being set 10 years before Northern Lights, Pullman himself describes La Belle Sauvage not as a prequel, but rather as an ‘equel’ – a new story that stands beside the previous trilogy (whatever that means).
However, since reading this latest instalment, I would say that La Belle Sauvage pretty much IS a prequel, as it tells the origin story of Lyra (the main protagonist in His Dark Materials).
In La Belle Sauvage we are introduced to Malcolm, an instantly likeable 11-year-old boy who is both practical and clever. Living a simple life assisting his parents at The Trout Inn, Malcolm is one day thrust – quite by accident – into a world of spies and secret underground movements.
His Dark Materials has been controversial since it’s release for its themes of politics and religion, and La Belle Sauvage doesn’t shy away from this either.
Set in a totalitarian-like society governed by the religious Magisterium, the scientific study of a particle believed to be consciousness – known as Dust – is highly illegal. Those who strive to uncover it’s secrets do so in the knowledge that they are being hunted by the feared Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD).
Therefore, at its core La Belle Sauvage is about the challenging authority and fighting for the right to free speech and scientific discovery. But it’s not laid on so thick. For the face-value reader, it’s about Malcolm attempting to get Lyra to safety, traversing a huge flood in his small boat with only Alice – the kitchen hand who he seldom gets on with – for company, and a scary villain hot on his tail.
This villain is much darker than previous villain’s encountered within the original trilogy. In Pullman’s universe, every person has a daemon – an extension of one’s self which is in the form of an animal. Bonneville, a disgraced scientist, has a foul, deformed hyena for a daemon, prone to defecating and bouts of uncontrollable, sinister laughter.
Everything about Bonneville made me uneasy, and his presence set the tone for a darker trilogy than the first (which is exciting, but a little bit scary as well!).
I think the best thing about Pullman’s writing is how seamless it is. It flows so naturally that you don’t even notice it, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story. I felt like I was physically with Malcolm every step of the way, enduring his struggles and his sadness, and revelling in the small victories and episodes of excitement.
I challenge anyone to read this and not fall in love.(5 / 5)
In the sudden silence, Lyra began to cry.
– Final sentence
Pullman has announced that the next instalment, The Secret Commonwealth, will take place a decade after The Amber Spyglass. Despite already written, we’ve got to wait a whole year before we can get our hands on it (Although if it’s anything as good as La Belle Sauvage, it’ll be worth the wait.)!