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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Book of Dust
Volume One:
La Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Title: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage
Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017
Length: 451 pages
Availability: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage - US
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage - UK
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage - Canada
La Belle Sauvage - France
Über den wilden Fluss - Deutschland
Il libro della polvere - Italia
El libro de la oscuridad - España
  • La Belle Sauvage is the first volume in The Book of Dust-trilogy

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, entertaining foundations but then too much of a gush of rote 'adventure'

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 19/10/2017 .
Entertainment Weekly B+ 19/10/2017 Christian Holub
Financial Times . 20/10/2017 Philip Womack
The Guardian . 18/10/2017 Marina Warner
The Independent . 18/10/2017 Lucy Scholes
New Statesman . 22/10/2017 Rowan Williams
The NY Times B 19/10/2017 Sarah Lyall
The Observer . 19/11/2017 F.C.Boyce
The Spectator . 21/10/2017 Melanie McDonagh
The Telegraph . 19/10/2017 Sam Leith
The Times . 21/10/2017 Nicholas Tucker
TLS . 19/10/2017 Michael Saler
The Washington Post . 18/10/2017 Elizabeth Hand

  Review Consensus:

  Generally positive, but also see/hope it's just the groundwork for the next two installments; some issues with Pullman's tendentiousness

  From the Reviews:
  • "At the risk of drawing too downmarket a comparison, La Belle Sauvage functions a little like Rogue One does for the Star Wars universe: less a narrative ploughing ahead than a bit of retroactive plot-filling." - The Economist

  • "(A) thrilling adventure and a welcome return to the world of daemons and Dust, though it does suffer from some common prequel pitfalls." - Christian Holub, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Pullmanís imagination is so enticing that any new window into it is welcome; and to connect once more with a fictional universe of such great power is a delight. Though La Belle Sauvage does not quite attain the fiery, magnificent heights of its predecessors, Iím certainly eager for the next two parts of this new trilogy " - Philip Womack, Financial Times

  • "The tension in Pullman between deep attraction to magic and fierce atheistic pragmatism resolves itself into a commitment to art -- especially shipshapeliness; this is a properly Romantic attitude." - Marina Warner, The Guardian

  • "La Belle Sauvage has the feel of an extended preface; thrillingly entertaining and beautifully written, but ultimately something of an introduction to the story proper we know follows thereafter." - Lucy Scholes, The Independent

  • "For much of the book, the narrative energy keeps up well: Pullmanís style is lively and physically specific, and the descriptions of the flood and its consequences are brilliantly done. But I was puzzled by the way in which the second part seemed artificially lengthened by two chapters that didnít appear to contribute anything to the flow of the story" - Rowan Williams, New Statesman

  • "La Belle Sauvage sometimes lags. (...) Iíd like to think that Pullman is biding his time, laying down the groundwork for what is yet to come. And even with its longueurs, the book is full of wonder." - Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

  • "The babyhood of your most beloved character is a worryingly obvious place to start a prequel, but one of the marks of Pullmanís genius is that he can take the obvious and make it blaze. (...) Iím not a bit surprised that he can write a thrilling chase but I really wasnít expecting it to get its urgency from the need to change a nappy and the pain of a raw bottom." - Frank Cottrell Boyce, The Observer

  • "These strands make up an excellent story, and simply as a tale of flight and pursuit, itís altogether enjoyable. But thereís more to it, unfortunately. (...) Anyway, the problem with Pullman is that his larger aspiration -- to see off Christianity -- is an impediment to his storytelling." - Melanie McDonagh, The Spectator

  • "Social and psychological commentary is seldom far from the surface. (...) (T)hereís a slight question mark over who the book is for -- the pretty childish, and the very adult, share space in its pages." - Sam Leith, The Telegraph

  • "Pullman plays with different narrative genres in La Belle Sauvage (.....) While Pullman is adept at conveying abstract ideas, he also excels at capturing nuances of character, scene and emotion. (...) La Belle Sauvage is a thrilling and thought-provoking excursion deeper into this territory -- but with a difference. The mysterious, liminal world evoked by the flood suggests that The Book of Dust may provide subtler satisfactions than its gloriously baroque predecessor" - Michael Saler, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Book of Dust feels more earthbound -- in the best way -- than the earlier trilogy. The cosmic clockwork of His Dark Materials, with its multiverses and metaphysics, becomes grounded in this new novel. (...) But there is plenty of magic here, too, not just daemons and startling prophecies but witches and specters, forays into Faerie, and Malcolmís eerie, migraine-like visions of the aurora borealis." - Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       La Belle Sauvage is the first in the (projected but not yet published) trilogy, The Book of Dust, itself intended to be a companion-series to Pullman's His Dark Materials-trilogy; several of the characters from His Dark Materials appear in La Belle Sauvage, most significantly, Lyra -- though here she is only a baby, about six months old. The main character in La Belle Sauvage is Malcolm Polstead, the eleven-year-old son of an innkeeper living on the Thames, three miles upriver from the center of Oxford. 'La Belle Sauvage' is the name of his canoe-- named after his uncle's pub.
       The world of La Belle Sauvage is, as in His Dark Materials, fundamentally similar to the (near-)contemporary real one, with a few notable differences -- including being rather behind as far as much modern-day technology goes. One fundamental difference with the nature of the real world is that in Pullman's world all humans have a 'dæmon', a being that takes on some animal figure and is an essential part of the human-being -- to the extent that it is extremely painful for a human and its dæmon to be separated by even more than just a short distance. Children's dæmons, like Malcolm's, Asta (yes, they have names, too), can and do -- often constantly -- shift form, only settling into one final, fixed, particular animal-form as the human reaches adulthood.
       History is also a bit different: a 'Swiss War' in the 1930s almost saw 'Brytain' (as it is here) conquered by the Magisterium, the Geneva-based (Catholic) Church that exerts an influence and power that its real-life counterpart last enjoyed many centuries ago. Even in Brytain, the Church is pervasive and powerful -- and seeks to increase its hold. Among their methods is a new 'League of St.Alexander', which school children are encouraged to join, and where they rat out parents, teachers, and anyone else who is: "working against the true faith", acting as: "the eyes and ears of the Holy Church in the corrupt world we live in". About half the kids in Malcolm's school join up, with predictable results.
       Helping out in his parent's inn's tavern, Malcolm encounters and overhears a variety of visitors' conversations -- and is occasionally asked for information. He also helps out at the Priory of St. Rosamund, right across the river -- and soon is particularly taken by a new resident, babe in arms Lyra, who is dropped off there by Lord Asriel. Malcolm barely has to glimpse the child before he's completely won over: "He was her servant for life".
       Lyra is given to the nuns for safe-keeping, as several parties are particularly interested in getting their hands on her, notably the Magisterium. Apparently, there's a prophecy that she's: "of supreme importance in some way" -- indeed, that she: "was destined to put an end to destiny". This also has to do with the 'Dust' of the (series-)title, which one researcher, Gerard Bonneville, suggests is part of a proof that: "everything is material and that matter itself is conscious" -- a materialist reality that would destroy the foundations of the faith-based Church.
       Before Lyra even arrives at the nuns', Malcolm chances to witness an attack by the authorities on someone -- and it is this that puts him in touch with an organization, called Oakley Street, that works to counter the Church. Malcolm is pulled into this world by Dr.Hannah Relf, a scholar who is also working with the 'alethiometer' at the Bodleian Library, a sort of divining-device whose messages only those atuned to it can properly 'read' and understand. Only six were made, with the whereabouts of five known, and with them apparently also being a possible key to the secrets of Dust, the Magisterium is also eager to get their hands on more of them ..... (Unsurprisingly, the sixth is also discovered during the course of the story, and two of them wind up in the hands of new owners by the end.)
       Half the novel nicely sets the foundations for the story, and, in part, the later trilogy. The weather features in the background throughout this, as it's gotten very wet -- and, eventually, Malcolm is warned that after a brief, misleading sunny respite, a terrible deluge will follow. He tries to get those he is concerned about -- including the nuns, and Dr.Relf -- to prepare, but hardly anyone believes him and takes the necessary steps. Meanwhile, he also senses growing threats to Lyra, from both the authorities and from the depraved Bonneville (whose dæmon is a three-legged hyena), especially when their initial efforts to get their hands on her fail.
       The deluge, and incredible floods, come, and Malcolm manages, just, to rescue the baby -- with only sixteen-year-old Alice, the kitchen help who had hitherto been: "the only annoyance in his life" (though far too little is seen and heard of her until the two team up). They're determined to bring the child to safety -- but unsure of how, and where, all by themselves in Malcolm's canoe ..... Floating on the flooded plains and streets -- more or less everything is covered with, if not entirely under water -- they try to make their way to London, to the home of Lord Asriel, trying to evade both the authorities -- that Consistorial Court of Discipline -- as well as, rather unbelievably, Bonneville, who just won't give up.
       Most of this second half of the book has Malcolm and Alice making their way by canoe, with intermittent stops for supplies, rest, and to attend to Lyra, usually with some spot of smaller or larger danger along the way. It's rather rote adventure, and while there's some suspense -- and certainly quite a bit of variety -- Pullman doesn't invest enough time or effort into these to make them truly gripping: they're over and done with, and the trio of kids is off to the next danger-spot, before you know it. It's a shame, because the challenging journey certainly offers more than its share of adventure, and a lot more could be made of these (but then the book as is already clocks in at well over 400 pages ...) -- and it stands in contrast to the much more exciting and deliberate first half of the book (even if a lot less -- of sorts -- happens there).
       Pullman is much better when focused on a sense of menace -- in the air, or at more of a distance -- than when it gets to actual confrontation (of which there is far too much, in various forms, in the second half of the book). The build-up of the story, before the rains really come, is very strong, even if much seems casual and everyday -- Malcolm helping out around the inn, or at the priory. The way the League of St.Alexander influences and changes the school environment -- and some of Malcolm's friends -- is a fine and well-presented lesson, while Malcolm's interactions with Dr.Relf, divided between discussions of books she lends him and the more dangerous information they exchange -- as well as her qualms about getting Malcolm involved in this dangerous business -- is very nicely handled too.
       Bonneville is the central evil character -- in part also because he just won't go away, hounding Malcolm and Alice far longer than is reasonable. He's also presented as a sexual predator -- very explicitly so, the one element of the book that might be particularly uncomfortable for younger readers. It's not that his menace is so very sexual -- Pullman handles that well enough (disturbing though much of it is) -- but that Pullman is so explicit about his deviance, literally labeling him as a sexual predator (as, for example, Bonneville has even been in jail because of his proclivities, as is repeatedly mentioned).
       Roughly the first half La Belle Sauvage is a slow, deliberate build-up of story -- though with quite a few flashes of darkness and excitement --; the second, one of fast, roaring adventure(s), and then a very abrupt end (with the promise: "To be continued ..."). But it's the slower-paced first half that's far more exciting, bursting with potential; the second is a fairly generic (if very watery) chase/escape adventure tale.
       It's all quite gripping, a book that one eagerly gulps down, even if the second half can't quite live up to all the first's promise. The abruptness of the conclusion, the story coming to a sudden stop, is also a bit disappointing -- but really there's nowhere else for it to go at that point: Lyra is still a gurgling baby, after all, and it's clear that not much can happen around her for a while. But certainly one remains curious -- and eager to read --: what next ?

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 October 2017

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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage: Reviews: Other books by Philip Pullman under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Philip Pullman was born in 1946. He has written numerous highly acclaimed and prize-winning books, mainly for younger readers.

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