Saturday, November 11, 2017

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

The gentleman waiting gave him a start, though all he was doing was sitting by the cold fireplace. Perhaps it was his dæmon, a beautiful silvery spotter leopard, or perhaps it was his dark, saturnine expression: in any event, Malcolm felt daunted, and very young and small. Asta became a moth.
La Belle Sauvage is the first in Pullman's newest trilogy, a companion to His Dark Materials. This first installation begins before The Golden Compass when Lyra is a baby, and Pullman introduces us to Malcolm, the son of innkeepers and Lyra's fierce defender. It's been 17 years since the final chapter in His Dark Materials was published, and I was concerned that Pullman, at 71, might have lost his touch. My concerns were utterly unfounded.

Pullman's imagination is as rich and captivating as ever. He transitions effortlessly from cozy fireside pub scenes to heart-pounding quests down flooded rivers, and he can build tension and suspense artfully. Each of his books includes a scene that is so dark that it disqualifies the book as purely YA fiction, and La Belle Sauvage had several, one so creepy, I had to stop reading.

I enjoyed hearing Pullman's take on male pre-adolescence (the earlier trilogy hinges on Lyra's coming of age), and Malcolm makes a great hero: smart, reflective, brave, but also sensitive in that way that boys who have not fully become teenagers still allow themselves to be. His love for Lyra is immediate, deep, and incredibly endearing; he's a kid and knows nothing about babies or how to care for them, but he's sold from the start.

Pullman is never overly preachy but tends to slip in some social critique (usually of religion), and in this volume, it came in the form of the League of St. Alexander--an organization named for a child who turned his parents in for being nonbelievers, sentencing them to death. The League recruits at Malcolm's school, giving children the authority to report not just their parents, but also their teachers and peers for suspicious behavior. It's one of the first hints that things are going to take a turn, and it's perfectly creepy.

Overall, this reminded me how much I enjoyed Pullman's writing. It's definitely geared to a younger audience, but it's serious and dense, and it treats young readers like the full humans they are. The next two volumes pick up where His Dark Materials lets off. I can't wait!

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