Review: Philip Pullman’s “La Belle Sauvage”

by Miles Raymer

La Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a unique and rightly-cherished accomplishment of narrative imagination. Given my deep fondness and respect for that work, I was both excited and nervous to hear that Pullman was returning to that world for a second trilogy. It can be dangerous to mess with a good thing, but more of a good thing can also be great. After finishing La Belle Sauvagethe first volume of The Book of Dust, I am cautiously optimistic that Pullman will once again create a story of epic scope and distinct value.

It is impossible to read this book without comparing it to The Golden Compassthe first volume in His Dark Materials. Like its predecessor, Sauvage is about a child who is on the verge of adolescence. The protagonist is Malcolm Polestead, an extremely likable boy with a steadfast constitution and a curious mind. He helps his parents run a tavern but dreams of one day becoming a scholar. Malcolm is a terrific foil to Lyra Belacqua––the protagonist of His Dark Materials. While Lyra is deceitful by nature and must learn the proper applications of honesty, Malcolm is honest to a fault and must learn the proper applications of deceit. Orbiting around Malcolm’s tale are Pullman’s usual preoccupations with the dangers of fundamentalist religion, the nature of reality, human consciousness, and the hardships of growing up.

Although Pullman doesn’t split La Belle Sauvage into two distinct parts, the book switches gears about halfway through, transitioning from a relatively simple and concrete narrative into an increasingly weird, nightmarish journey teeming with ecological disaster, fantastic locales and characters, and harrowing trauma. The latter part of the book is very dark––definitely not something I’d recommend for young kids (early teens and older are probably fine). As the book closed, I couldn’t figure out whether Pullman’s narrative was unraveling or picking up speed. I assume the latter based on his excellent track record, but I’ll have to wait for volumes two and three to know for sure. On its own, La Belle Sauvage is stimulating if not particularly satisfying. It may signify the start of something wonderful.

Rating: 7/10