Book Review: Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Life is tough, so entertainment presents a great escape from real life grittiness. I tend to opt for potboilers, comedies, and the like when I choose a movie to watch. Similarly, I love fantasy novels. The odd non-fiction has seeped into my reading list of late, but my one true love is fantasy.

Of all the series that I have enjoyed over the years [Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, etc.] the offbeat Wind on Fire trilogy was my favourite, followed closely by the His Dark Materials series. So when I saw this book on the shelf of a bookstore? There may have been some excited leaping and squealing that took place.

We shall never know.

Author: Philip Pullman

Story: La Belle Sauvage predates the beginning of the Golden Compass, and Lyra is still a baby. [Thus she can’t do anything is the point I am making here.] However, she is central to the plot of this book, as is Malcolm Polstead, an intelligent boy, who happens to be the local innkeeper’s son.

Malcolm spends his time in school, at the inn, or in the neighbouring priory with the resident nuns. He is quick to learn, and has picked up knowledge through waiting on his father’s inn tables, and speaking to the other adults that form his small, happy world. One of his greatest joys is to paddle around on the river in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.

The peaceful pace of life is soon interrupted when three men stop at the inn, and ask Malcolm a few searching questions. Soon, through a series of events far out of his control, he becomes embroiled in the tussle between the Magisterium’s forces and the those who are determined to oppose them.

Writing: I maintain that I always prefer British authors because of their ability to sound self-deprecating, minimalist, and dry, whilst also painting vivid pictures filled with motion and sentiment. I loved the previous series by this author for his richly imaginative scenes, which while they share common threads with our world, and still magically different enough to be pure fantasy.

Characters: The characters are trite in this novel. Malcolm is repeatedly described as intelligent, but he lacks sparkle. His parents are background characters. Alice is one-dimensional initially, and grows into a complex character later, but remains woefully underdeveloped even then.

Bonneville is the villain of the piece, but could have had his shades of genius gone horribly wrong brought about more adeptly. Dr. Relf is a steady, sturdy character, again underdeveloped.

However, the saddest part for me was the dearth of descriptions of the numerous magical beings in the story. The episode with Diania, for example, was incredibly powerful, but there is no explanation as to her motives or any other insight into her world, nature, or desires. Since that part of the story is conclusively finished, I can’t even hold out the hope that it will be explored in subsequent novels.

Pace: Abysmal pace. Sticky in places, and several boring bits thrown in. I would preferred a deeper understanding of the characters and the various other plot points thrown into the narrative, rather than a detailed geographical expose on the countryside of Oxford and London.

Conclusion: It could have been so much better, it is almost tragic. That said, the story is beguiling enough for me to pick up the new installments in the series. [Who am I kidding? It is because I *have* to finish the series.] Additionally, the story doesn’t resolve in any way, and everything is open-ended. Extremely frustrating to have something end on a cliffhanger, so that’s a minus point in my opinion.

Rating: ✩✩✩



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