Friday, 20 April 2018

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust vol 1, by Philip Pullman

I was kind of apprehensive about reading La Belle Sauvage, because His Dark Materials holds an incredibly special place in my heart and revivals, retcons and prequels are rarely good. This is not the place for that list.

I was just so happy to be going back into this world, with young Coram and Sophonax, and the chugging of tokay, and the glow of anbaric light and the Daemons and Dust... I did get the unusual feeling, however, that despite LBS occurring earlier in the timeline, the world just felt more modern than the almost-19th-century of Northern Lights? Just the way people spoke and behaved felt much more contemporary. The "otherness" of Lyra's universe has always felt very palpable, but in this book I found that whilst many elements were the same, I got a much more modern vibe from the environment. It's hard to explain. The world of LBS felt both familiar and altered at the same time.

La Belle Sauvage charts the journeys and adventures of 11 year old Malcolm Polstead of the Trout Inn, near Oxford. Friend to nuns, clearer of glasses, canoe skipper extraordinaire. Whilst exploring the riverbanks one day, Malcolm and his daemon Asta accidentally intercept a coded message hidden inside a wooden acorn- apparently a method of passing information used by secret organisation Oakley Street. This leads him into a friendship with Alethiometer-reader and scholar Dr Hannah Relf, and to her engaging him as a sort of protégé scholar-spy-book-reader and eventually into inevitable danger and adventure. Malcolm has also befriended a baby in the stewardship of the nuns, a 6 week old called Lyra who is apparently unwanted by her mother and both  inconvenient to and endangered by her father. When a deluge unlike anything ever seen before is foreseen, most people choose not to listen. Once the river rises, taking much of the surrounding towns and villages with it, Malcolm, baby Lyra and Alice, a surly nemesis of Malcolm's from the Inn are stranded in the canoe, the Belle Sauvage. Nothing remains but to get Lyra to Jordan College, to claim Scholarly Sanctuary.

I did quite like this book's darker tone. The 1984-esque informant culture of Malcolm's school, of the teachers that refuse to tow the line disappearing overnight. The oppression and the creeping fingers of religious indoctrination, guilt and a sickening sort of righteous patriotism begin to strangle society. It felt like the beginning of something, a foreboding prelude to bigger, scarier things. The parallels with today's unsettling climate of Nationalism and a slide into dangerous far-right discourse and attitudes cannot be ignored. There is one of the creepiest, most skin-crawling villains in a long time, deeper exploration of the fantastical elements of the World, including an River God, a pretty terrifying baby-snatching, Rumpelstiltskin-esque enchantress and a mysterious twilight world of opulence and ignorance, and plenty of river-based adventure.

It was an unusually speedy read for me, I was absolutely swept up in Malcolm and Alice's endeavour. I loved their changing relationship and their familiarity as heroes- Malcolm is capable and mature, intelligent and curious, dependable and honest to a fault. He is a traditional Hero in the most complimentary sense of the word. Not invincible, but he pushes his homesickness and his doubts and any trepidation about being 11 and having too much responsibility here to the back of his mind and Gets Things Done. Alice is surly and bitter, she has weathered a less comfortable upbringing than Malcolm and sees little opportunity available to her. She too is competent and loyal, she is tough and courageous, capable of looking after herself and anybody she feels protective of. Though I read the book quickly and thoroughly enjoyed it, looking back I think I would struggle to fully explain what happened in any meaningful way- criticisms of it being episodic are difficult to deflect.

I think we are all lying to ourselves if we claim this is as good as His Dark Materials, but it is nonetheless an absolute joy to be permitted to revisit Lyras world, to spend some time with the people that were instrumental to her early life, whether she will turn out to remember them or not. Also, the concept of baby daemons? Cutest thing I've ever read in my whole damn life.

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