La Belle Sauvage is good but suffers from a problem: it occurs a little more than a decade before His Dark Materials and concerns Lyra as a baby. But anyone who’s read His Dark Materials knows that she survives. The supposed threats to her are drained of potency and that in turn drains the book of vibrancy. It feels more like a kids’ book than His Dark Materials, too.
There is even a strange moment on the third page, about Malcolm: “he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm later in life.” So we know he survives, too.
Many sections are charming, though not in a flashy way:
There was probably nowhere, he thought, where anyone could learn so much about the world as this little bend of the river, with the inn on one side and the priory on the other.
There are probably many people who do think that you could learn more “about the world” somewhere else, but an 11-year-old could very easily believe otherwise, as Malcolm does.
Malcolm is also charmingly unmanaged; many passages like this:
“I lent the canoe to someone, and that man brought it back.”
“Oh. Well, get on and take these dinners through. Table by the fire.”
between Malcolm and his mother feel not of this world, or at least the chattering-class part of it. Valuable items like canoes would probably be the subject of much supervision today. Too much. Articles like “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed” came to mind as I read Malcolm’s journey towards antifragility.
Scholars are important in the Pullman world, which is a refreshing change from much of our world.
Sprinkled throughout the book is a sense of malevolent bureaucracy, religious in form here but transferable to other kinds. The Consistorial Court of Discipline, the “Environmental Protection” people, the League of St. Alexander: they all have an undertone of official harassment, and even people not formally part of the organization can act like people in the organization. Yet suspicion of bureaucracy is not enough to impede its growth. The individuals matter, even the ones who are “terrifying” like Sister Benedicta. Even those adults who aren’t part of bureaucracies, per se, are making or speculating on bureaucratic pronouncements, like “I should think every boat that exists will have been requisitioned by the authorities.”
Despite moments of interest, La Belle Sauvage is not as narratively compelling as The Golden Compass, though I don’t entirely know why. Even apart from the issue of Lyra surviving, I often found my attention wandering, thinking about other books.
This piece is excellent and discusses the thematic elements, although it’s also spoiler-laden.
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