book review: la belle sauvage (book of dust #1)

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Random House Children's UK, 560 pp.
Published October 19, 2017

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)

Summary (via Goodreads): Philip Pullman returns to the world of His Dark Materials with this magnificent new novel, set ten years before Northern Lights and featuring his much-loved character, Lyra Belacqua.

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...

My thoughts: A little honesty before I dive into the review...I love Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials so much that I pre-ordered a signed and numbered edition of his new book from a British bookseller. Then, after waiting a little while for the package to make its way across one ocean and half a continent, I decided I would wait to make this my first read of 2018. (You can't have a bad year if the first book you read is good. I don't make the rules, that's just how it is!) I love this series so much it even inspired my blog name. So I'm going to admit upfront that I started La Belle Sauvage with more than a little bias and some very high expectations.

Expectations that Philip Pullman vastly exceeded.

Say the word "prequel" and devoted fans of a series may rightly shiver in fear. Too often creators use them as cheap money-grabs or worse, to revise errors that their followers may instead see as treasured details. In La Belle Sauvage, Pullman uses this dubious mechanism to instead deepen a segment of the world containing Lyra's Oxford not touched upon in the original trilogy. Some familiar characters drift on and off the page, yet for much of the novel's 500+ pages they remain on the fringes in favor of new faces. These new characters are as richly realized as those who preceded them; in time, they'll be just as loved too.

The novel is divided into two sections: The Trout and The Flood. In the first, which takes up a little over half the chapters, we meet Malcolm, a slightly older girl named Alice who works at his parents' inn, and Hannah, a scholar of the alethiometer with secrets of her own. Through Malcolm we witness the burgeoning power of the Magisterium, whose authority was well-established by The Golden Compass. A school club called the League of St. Alexander draws disturbing parallels with the Hitler Youth, while the Consistorial Court of Discipline inspires fear as a religious secret police. These are all human institutions, whose actions affect the human world. Absent are the deep theological questions and implications dealt with in HDM; this new trilogy is swiftly shaping up to be the story of how greed, self-righteousness, and lust for power brought about the need for Lyra's quest one decade later.

If chapters in "The Trout" section carefully lay the foundations of a future theocracy, in "The Flood" we return to the phantasmal darkness that cements Pullman as a master of the genre. Swept away by torrential rain, Malcolm, Alice, and baby Lyra float southward in search of safety. During their journey, covetous fairies offer sweet enticements behind pointed teeth. In a fog-choked demi-world oblivious adults fete on sweeping lawns while, across a river, hides "everything they ought to remember. If it [the fog] ever cleared away they'd have to take stock of theirselves, and they wouldn't be able to stay in the garden no more." (The last is spoken by a fluvial gatekeeper who takes his orders from Father Thames.) With the overarching question of Dust relegated to the background, the supernatural and political threats in La Belle Sauvage take on an adult and sinister edge.

Malcolm delights as the new central protagonist. Clever and resourceful in a way that is complementary to (but not a facsimile of) Lyra's tenaciousness, he continues in Pullman's tradition of thrusting ordinary men and women into extraordinary circumstances, where their talents shine. His companion Alice intrigues, although telling the tale through Malcolm's viewpoint hinders some larger revelations. In the waning pages Pullman shifts the narrative over to her; I hope we see a similar shift in the series' second book that occurred in HDM, when Will shared the story equally with Lyra. The scholar Hannah is quite similar to the physicist Mary, which is not necessarily a negative. I would like to see her role expand in later books, however.

For all its fantasy elements, La Belle Sauvage is decidedly grounded in humanity in a way that His Dark Materials was not. Without the trappings of angels and multiverses its conflicts reflect more pointedly on today's headlines. It's an inspired return to Lyra's Oxford that fulfills every promise so often broken by prequels. New readers will have the joy of discovering His Dark Materials while they wait for a sequel, while established fans of the original trilogy will delight in finding themselves home among friends once more.

RATING: ★★★★★


  1. Yes! I’m so happy this lived up to HDM. I was soooo nervous it was going to be a flop and then I’d end up with a mid-life crisis haha. I am so excited to read this now!!

    1. You should have nothing to fear :) I'll probably read all four books again before the year is out!

  2. Yeah I’m planning on reading HDM before starting this one. I’m ready for this binge read!

  3. Oooh! I will have to add this to my TBR! :)

    1. You won't regret it! And let me know what you think :)

  4. I am sooo excited about this one. I read His Dark Materials last year AND IT WAS SO GOOD. I was a little bit disappointed this was a prequel because I had been hoping that maybe they get to meet after all ;_; but you know. #FEELS

    A signed edition! Oh, I am so jealous!! That's amazing! Did you make bookstagrams?

    1. There is a short story called "Lyra's Oxford" that takes place two years after HDM! I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he'll do more sequels after Book of Dust :O

      Haha, it was definitely a special end-of-year treat! I lack any and all photographic skills, so no bookstagrams for me. I did see that others made them though!