Review: Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage

By Daniel P. Dern: La Belle Sauvage (note, ‘sauvage’ appears to translate to ‘wild’ or ‘unspoiled’ rather than ‘savage’) is the first of a new trilogy from Pullman, set in the same universe (figuratively and literally, arguably) as his His Dark Materials trilogy — The Golden Compass (a.k.a. Northern Lights),
The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.

La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, set about twelve years before the start of Compass, when Lyra Belacqua is a six-month-old baby. The next two books will, according to Pullman, take place almost a decade after the end of his first triology. (So, “prequel, sequel, sequel.”)

I found LBS readable and engaging enough… but unsatisfying in that it didn’t, to me, add to the original trilogy, it’s easy to feel it’s fleshed-out “off-stage” text establishing the world, characters and key plot elements for Materials.

Author Philip Pullman launches La Belle Sauvage, 22 years after his best-selling Northern Lights, at Bodleian Libraries. Image is copyright Anthony Upton 2017©.

Prequels are a challenging proposition, whether done by the original author or by others, as anyone who’s read through the various prequels for Dune, Zelazny’s Amber, Asimov’s Robots’n’Foundations, etc. knows. Some do add to our total sense of enjoyment, some don’t.

Yes, there’s some new/additional information (or theorizing, by the characters) about the nature of “Dust” (“Rusakov particles”)… but I don’t feel that the pre-Materials events involving familiar and new characters added to my previous enjoyment (or concerns) of Pullman’s Materials trilogy. Hopefully it will pay off in Books 2 and 3, and perhaps they will justify LBS as needed to establish these new characters and the formative events they went through.

Anyhoo, that’s my non-spoiler philosophic reader’s opinion. I don’t resent the time reading this book, but having done so, I feel that I would have not been the worse or less for not reading it. I do look forward to reading Books 2 and 3, and conceded that I may feel differently about Book 1 after that; perhaps it’s best put on the “wait until the series is done” pile.

Meanwhile, here’s a few quick non-spoiler details, notes and thoughts.

The main protagonist of La Belle Sauvage is an 11-year-old boy named Malcolm. (La Belle Sauvage is the name of his canoe.)

Through circumstance (when not in school or doing other things, Malcom works in his parents’ pub), Malcolm becomes involved and embroiled with/in, unsurprisingly, Dust, Lord Asrael, Mrs. Coulder, (baby) Lyra, witches, etc. (But no Bears.)

Although La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, if you haven’t read the Materials trilogy, you should read those books first, in my opinion, so you have a better understanding of the world that Pullman has created.

One thought — I’m not sure if it qualifies as a criticism, or is simply a question — is baby Lyra as the anti-MacGuffin. Since Lyra is the lead protagonist in Materials, it’s a given that, barring some comicbook-or-Game-Of-Thrones-level “dead — no, alive again” plot contortions, it’s a good bet that Baby MacG will survive basically unscathed. This, IMHO, seriously turns down the dramatic tension, and also makes LBS feel less like it has a “plot” than “a sequence of related events.” And similarly, while the book is introducing us to a cast of new characters, and expanding the backstory for those we already know from Materials, it doesn’t feel like the plot, or peoples’ actions, are integral… Pullman could just as easily written ten or twenty character study summaries.

But, like I posit above, LBS may legitimately be a necessary set-up to Books 2 and 3. Only time will tell.

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