I am underwhelmed. But prequels often frustrate me, so perhaps I should not be disappointed by my disappointment. There is little suspense when I can answer the riddles, and already know the fate of the characters that I love.
Saying that, La Belle Sauvage is okay. The plot is interesting, and speaks of Pullman’s effortless talent for blending realism with fantasy. Malcolm Polstead, son of Oxford innkeeper, is thrust into danger as a result of a set of chance encounters. He, alongside his companion Alice, must navigate perilous waters, guarding the life of a baby girl we know as Lyra Belacqua.
Pullman, as always, adds beautiful magic to his dark tale. I particularly liked a scene in a realm in which Malcolm, Alice, Lyra and their dæmons appear invisible – a realm that is adorned with lush vegetation and festivity in what should be a flooded winter. Pullman again writes of acutely evil bodies – the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) haunt the children, and The League of St Alexander seek to eliminate atheism and force religious connection. As in His Dark Materials, the tyrannical oppression of the church, and the possibilities of Dust, are the main focal point of this narrative. The saviour of Lyra by the two children is an adventure tale within a bleak existence.
Though I did not expect LBS to achieve HDM levels of brilliance, I did not expect it to fall quite so short. I found the characters rather boring: Alice is snarly, but protective (stereotypically soft underneath her exterior rage); Malcolm is, well, unexciting (he is perfectly adequate, but not particularly gripping). Part of the wonder of HDM is the evident complexity of human nature, and I can’t locate this in LBS. Even Lord Asriel is remarkably tame. Pullman’s villain, Bonneville is also somewhat stereotypical. However, his use of sexual violence is striking, and coupled with the fevered anger of Alice that involves significant swearing, this novel distinctly lacks the feel of children’s tale that HDM possessed behind its allegory.
Despite maintaining his wonderful writing style, Pullman’s plot often seemed lost and unfinished. But I hope that each loose end is resolved in later novels. I know that Relf will reappear, alongside the CCD and The League of St Alexander. But I also wish to know more of Albion and the enchanted realm – the small, spectacular moments that were so wonderful, but seemed rather random in the grand scheme.
Overall, I didn’t adore this book, but I will read the next instalments nonetheless. It was wonderful being in a world so familiar, and yet new. But in terms of character, it let me down. I can only hope that the next volume will adapt to the complexity that I love, and unravel mysteries that I am perplexed by.
Thanks for reading!