La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage.jpgYes, I know La Belle Sauvage was published ages ago and the second volume of Philip Pullman's Book of Dust trilogy is already out - what can I say? I'm late to the party with this one.

The trilogy, starting with La Belle Sauvage and continuing with The Secret Commonwealth with a third volume still to come, expands on the His Dark Materials trilogy. La Belle Sauvage is a prequel to His Dark Materials, while The Secret Commonwealth is a sequel.

Malcolm Polstead is an 11-year-old boy who lives with his parents in their riverside pub, The Trout, and also helps the nuns at the nearby priory with odd jobs. La Belle Sauvage is Malcolm's rowing boat, of which he's extremely proud, even when other children amend the painted lettering of  'Sauvage' to say 'Sausage'. At the start of the book, three things happen that set in motion the plot of the novel. Three men, including the Lord Chancellor, arrive at The Trout and question Malcolm about the priory. A baby, Lyra, arrives at the priory to be cared for by the nuns there. And Malcolm witnesses a dead letter drop by the river which results in him finding a secret message and a man being murdered.

The plot that unfolds is the story of how Lyra Belacqua, heroine of the His Dark Materials trilogy, ended up in the care of Jordan College, Oxford, and it also establishes the presence of the Magisterium, a religious authority, as an increasingly sinister and oppressive force, encouraging Malcolm's classmates to join the League of Saint Alexander and to report their teachers for not sticking to the Magisterium's doctrine. With the help of numerous other characters, primarily his parents' employee Alice, Malcolm becomes responsible for rescuing baby Lyra from the Magisterium. Meanwhile, a great flood sweeps across the country and turns the landscape into something frightening and alien.

La Belle Sauvage begins slowly but is, as you'd expect, full of intrigue and secrets and builds to a tense climax. There is a deeply sinister, predatory villain, Gerard Bonneville, whose blackened heart and twisted mind are signified to both Malcolm and the reader by his violence towards his own daemon (in the His Dark Materials universe, every human being has a daemon, an animal which represents part of their psyche). The parts of the book where Malcolm and Alice make their way across the flooded landscape are eerie and atmospheric.

I don't think La Belle Sauvage has quite the magic of Northern Lights or its sequels, and it feels as if it's perhaps written for an older readership. But that said, it's still a gripping alternate-universe fantasy and a worthy instalment to the series.