La Belle Sauvage
First edition cover
|Series||The Book of Dust|
David Fickling Books (UK)|
Alfred A. Knopf (US)
|19 October 2017|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
|Pages||560 (UK); 449 (US)|
La Belle Sauvage is a fantasy novel by Philip Pullman published in 2017, the first volume in a planned trilogy named The Book of Dust. Set around 12 years before the start of His Dark Materials, Pullman's previous trilogy, the story covers the events leading up to Lyra Belacqua's arrival as a six-month-old baby at Jordan College, Oxford.
The setting is a world dominated by the Magisterium, also commonly called "the Church", an international theocracy which actively suppresses heresy. In this world, humans' souls naturally exist outside of their bodies in the form of sentient "dæmons", in animal form which accompany, aid, and comfort their humans. An important plot device is the alethiometer, or symbol reader, of which just six are known to exist. By setting three of the alethiometer's hands to point to symbols around a dial a skilled practitioner can pose questions, which are answered by the automatic movement around the dial of a fourth hand.
Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon Asta live in Godstow, three miles from Oxford. Malcolm works alongside fifteen-year-old Alice, a sharp-tongued girl, in his parents' inn, close to the Priory of St. Rosamund, where Malcolm helps the nuns with maintenance and cooking. One day, three men, led by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Nugent, arrive at the inn and ask Malcolm some questions about the priory. Shortly afterwards, an infant age around six months named Lyra arrives in the care of the nuns.
Walking near the river, Malcolm sees a failed attempt at a dead drop, and he finds a secret message. The intended recipient is Hannah, an Oxford academic studying the alethiometer, a truth-telling device, who is also helping the secret freedom-seeking organization known as "Oakley Street" in its fight against the theocratic extremism of the Magesterium. Hannah, using the alethiometer, finds Malcolm and retrieves her message. The two strike up a friendship in which Malcolm assists her intelligence-gathering and she provides him with books to read from her own library.
The Magesterium's influence and dominance continues to grow. At Malcolm's school, students are encouraged to join the League of St. Alexander, and report anybody - including teachers - who contradicts the Magesterium's religious views. Coram van Texel, also working for Oakley Street, is investigating the activities of Mrs Coulter in Sweden and discovers that she is looking into the Rusakov field and has asked an alethiometrist to find her daughter Lyra's location. Coram is followed by a man with a malevolent-looking hyena dæmon and fights him, badly wounding the dæmon's front leg. Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, visits the inn and borrows Malcolm's canoe, La Belle Sauvage, in order to secretly visit his daughter; as a token of thanks, he returns it significantly improved. Coram warns Malcolm of an impending and extreme flood, but Malcolm is unable to convince people to believe the warning. A man named Gerard Bonneville arrives at the inn, accompanied by a three-legged hyena dæmon, and Malcolm sees him snooping around the priory.
Heavy rain starts to fall. Alice warns Malcolm about Bonneville, who they see trying to take the baby Lyra. As the flood arrives, Malcolm and Alice rescue the child and escape down the river in La Belle Sauvage. They intend to stop at Jordan College to seek academic sanctuary for Lyra, but are prevented by the ferocity of the floodwaters. Instead, they head to London, where her father Lord Asriel lives. They are pursued by Bonneville, and both Oakley Street and the Magisterium are also searching for them. They narrowly escape from Bonneville, when Malcolm stabs him in the thigh and Alice shoots his dæmon, shattering its other leg. They set his boat free on the aater, and take his heavy backpack. Shortly afterwards, they unexpectedly meet George Boatwright, a former patron of The Trout who has been in hiding with a small community since running afoul of the Church. Their arrival is reported to The League of St. Alexander by one of the boys in the group, and Lyra is captured and taken to a orphanage run by a convent. Malcolm enters through the scullery and rescues Lyra while Alice keeps the canoe safe.
The children have two more mystical stops in the canoe. In the first, a fairy woman named Diania gives them food and feeds Lyra, whom she claims and intends to keep. In Bonneville's pack, they find his scientific papers describing the Rusakov field and an alethiometer in a puzzle box. They use the box to help them escape by tricking Diania and winning a challenge to keep Lyra. In the second, they find themselves in an elegant garden where a party is being held. Nearby, behind a wall of mist, are all the things the partygoers wish to forget. Their onward passage is blocked by a pair of massive lock gates controlled by a river giant, whom they persuade to open the gates, pretending to have authorisation from the King. The canoe ends up at a mausoleum, where Bonneville attacks again, and this time is killed by Malcolm.
Finally, Alice, Malcolm, and Lyra make it to London, closely chased by the forces of the Magesterium. Lord Nugent and Lord Asriel rescue them from La Belle Sauvage, which is finally breaking up, and Lord Asriel takes them by gyrocopter to Jordan College, where he obtains academic sanctuary for Lyra and leaves her in the care of the Master. Malcolm secretly places Bonneville's alethiometer in Lyra's possessions.
Pullman conceived The Book of Dust before the publication of Lyra's Oxford in 2003, originally as a single volume. Writing was under way by 2005, but by 2011 Pullman said that he was considering splitting the novel into two volumes, one set before His Dark Materials and the other set afterwards. In February 2017, Pullman announced that The Book of Dust had become a 'companion' trilogy.
Prior to publication it had been announced that The Book of Dust was to be published by Random House Children’s Books and David Fickling Books in the UK, and by Random House Children's Books in the US. La Belle Sauvage was ultimately released on 19 October 2017 by David Fickling Books in the UK, and by Alfred A. Knopf in the US.
The novel received positive reviews. The Guardian described it as "worth the wait", calling it "old-fashioned and comfy". The Independent said that "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". The Washington Post was extremely positive, stating that "too few things in our own world are worth a 17-year-wait: The Book of Dust is one of them". The A.V. Club said that "even without the deep well of context of those other books of Dust, La Belle Sauvage stands on its own as a singularly beguiling work of fantasy. It's sure to be devoured by readers young and old alike".
The New York Times felt the book to be "full of wonder" in spite of some longueurs and long stretches of flat dialogue. While acknowledging that "as a tale of flight and pursuit, it’s altogether enjoyable", The Spectator suggested that Pullman's larger aspiration — 'to see off Christianity' — was an impediment to his storytelling, and that the metaphysical ideas around which the narrative revolves were its least successful part.
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