Book review: La Belle Sauvage

After a long wait, Philip Pullman has released a follow-up to his wildly successful and highly acclaimed His Dark Materials, forming the first installment of a new trilogy; The Book of Dust.

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The new three-parter is billed by Pullman as an ‘equel’ since the events start before the events of Northern Lights, and finish after the end of The Amber Spyglass. But make no mistake, La Belle Sauvage is a prequel.

A significant element of the plot is the protection of the infant Lyra, for reasons which aren’t fully explained. In this sense it’s a bit like Rogue One, in the fact it’s a prequel that relies on understanding of the original tale to fully be fully appreciated. But there are clearly themes and ideas that Pullman wants to explore here.

Taking place a decade before Northern Lights, it follows Malcolm, a young boy who works in an Oxford tavern, and becomes involved in espionage between the CCD, an oppressive religious organisation, and Oakley Street, a secret society dedicated to the protection of democracy and freedom.

Because of this, Pullman’s criticism of religious authoritarianism is at the fore, even more so than in His Dark Materials, going so far as to introduce The Order of Saint Alexander, which goes into schools to encourage children to rat out their atheist parents. But like his original trilogy, it stays away from pure ‘good vs evil’ with moral ambiguity on both sides.

It’s very much a book of two halves, with the first feeling almost like a Cold War tale, as Malcolm relays information to kindly alethiometrist Dr Hannah Relf, allowing for further exploration of the concept of Dust and what it means. The second half then takes us into full-on fantasy territory, even if it falls short of the scale and scope of Northern Lights.

Thanks to Pullman’s irresistible prose and the richness of the world he has created this is a must-read for fans of his original novels, but whether it can form the foundation of a standalone trilogy remains to be seen.

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