Another year, another Philip Pullman series! Well, not really. The last world-renowned series that Pullman released was His Dark Materials, and what a series it was. But that was all too long ago. Those familiar with His Dark Materials might think of it as the atheist’s take on Narnia. Those who aren’t will at least have heard of it since it is the book that the feature film The Golden Compass is based on.
The first instalment of his new series, The Book of Dust, is La Belle Sauvage - in English, ‘The Beautiful Savage’. Pullman returns to Lyra’s world, continuing to highlight the shady side of religion in what is a much darker book.
The story carries us on a journey where Lyra – the protagonist of His Dark Materials – is still a baby but somehow still very much the same fierce personality as she is in the original series. Pullman continues in his familiar fashion of having as the main characters a young boy and girl. This time, it is Malcolm and Alice. Though they may be young, the world around them isn’t.
His Dark Materials is famous - notorious, perhaps - for its portrayal of the Magisterium, a global religious authority, as the main antagonists. In La Belle Sauvage, Pullman continues to explore this. Notably, we learn about ‘The League of Saint Alexander’, a group designed to encourage children to report heretic behaviour. Pullman is adamant about getting his very anti-religious message across and is well-practiced at exploring the authoritative and negative side of organised religion, which as we know is a heated theme at present.
For example, it would be naïve to assume that most children had no idea of the current situation regarding Islamic terror, or even that they never questioned the existence of God. He does perhaps do this a bit bluntly, and the allegorical veil often wears thin. However, this appears to be his style.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this was a children’s book, but its content is fairly mature. Violence and unpleasantness are fairly commonplace. In one scene, Pullman even alludes to the molestation of a child. Pullman should be applauded for the way he balances the mature and the fantastically wondrous, the latter of which makes his writing so irresistible. Reading La Belle Sauvage felt very much like a dream: nightmarish in parts, and absurdly glorious in others. Yet despite that absurdity, it is very easy to soak in. There are of course a few watery bits here and there. There are also a lot of passages which are slightly drawn out, such as one describing in detail the way the trio make their way through the flood, which was slightly unnecessary.
La Belle Sauvage introduced some interesting new characters as well as gave us a glimpse of the history of some old ones (Farder Coram!). Malcolm, who works as a potboy in his parents’ inn, is a likeable character from the start. He is curious without being nosy and has a strong moral compass. He is very down to earth and takes it upon himself to be Lyra’s protector. Alice, his companion, is a pleasantly resilient young girl. Alice is the type of girl who seems to be older than her years and despite her ferociousness, she has a unique personality and a good heart, ending up as a very lovable addition to the characters we know and love. Then of course there is the baby Lyra, who has a personality of her own. If Malcolm and Alice were Claus and Violet Baudelaire from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, then Lyra would be Sunny - an innocent yet fierce baby who you would have no trouble believing will become the Lyra of the future.
Finally, there is Gerard Bonneville. This is an evil man who brings the darkness to the book. He and his terrifying hyena daemon make for a truly frightening combination. The parts where he makes an appearance were some of the most interesting and exciting in the book.
Do not believe for a second that this book is a shadow of His Dark Materials. La Belle Sauvage is written just as well, and told in the same gripping fashion. My only regret upon its publication is the wait until the next instalment of the Book of Dust. But if you can’t bear the thought of the wait till The Secret Commonwealth is released then fret not! His Dark Materials is due to be made into a full-length BBC series later this year. Here’s to many more years of Pullman’s beautiful fantasy.