Is Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage any good? A review

The Book of Dust La Belle Sauvage
One Star
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
ISBN: 9780385604413
Published by Random House on October 19th 2017
Buy on Amazon US | The Book Depository | Barnes & Noble | Buy on Amazon UK

As a huge Philip Pullman fan, I was looking forward to La Belle Sauvage, but came away disappointed.

Where has Pullman’s genial creativity that he showed so clearly in His Dark Materials gone? Where’s his unexpected plot twists? His fascinatingly unique, deep and rich characters? The brooding mystery? His political machinations? A sense of fun? His mastery of the macabre?

I loved His Dark Materials. In just the opening three chapters he introduces us to the amazing daemons, a poisoning plot, a severed head in a coolbox, children kidnapped by the menacing Gobblers, armoured bears in the Far North, scary night-ghasts, the magical alethiometer, zeppelins and the mysterious Dust. The main character is the wild, effervescent, naughty Lyra. It was a breathtaking trilogy. In comparison, La Belle Sauvage is a plodding yawn.

Book of Dust – and as Dull as Dust

Instead of the quirky Lyra, the central character here is 11-year-old Malcolm; a Bob-A-Job, Goodie-Two-Shoes, Master-Fixit with oodles of down-to-earth common sense but with severe failings in the charisma department: he “was not noticed much” and if he had a nickname “it would have been the Professor.” His best friends seem to be the nuns from the priory, the aged carpenter, and his boat, La Belle Sauvage. His travelling companion Alice is a clichéd serving wench; rough and uneducated, fancied by the lecherous villain, she only comes to life when she gets angry, which we know because she starts swearing. The other characters are as wet, grey and unappealing as the floodwater. Even the noble adventurer Lord Asriel gets cleaned up and sanitized (Lord Ariel?); his main appearance is when he takes the baby for a midnight coochy-coo-coo in the garden.

The overall plot is as thin as a Kindle: boy meets girl and saves baby from flood and weirdo. It’s a flood of Noahic proportions, with people drowned, Oxford and London virtually submerged, buildings demolished, yet the titular boat rarely meets any survivors, bumps into just one drowned person, and keeps beaching on deserted islands mid-river. Where is everyone? And on two of these islands things occur that simply do not fit the storyline.

Even the daemons are dull

The daemons shape-shift endlessly, but we know that by now so it becomes somewhat tiresome. At times when a daemon was going from robin to cat to jackdaw to otter to moth, I was screaming for one to turn into a pterodactyl, tarantula or dragon, but no, it was back to a robin.

If you’ve never read Pullman, don’t start here. Read His Dark Materials.If you’re a Pullman fan, don’t continue with La Belle Sauvage. Re-read His Dark Materials.



One Star

14 responses to “Is Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage any good? A review

    • Denzil

      Well of course you may read it and think otherwise, but I have seen quite a lot of similar grumbles that it “ain’t as good as his others!”

  1. Though it was some time ago that I read Pullman’s Dark Materials, I loved them – owned all three for quite some time. I am sorry to hear that La Belle Sauvage was such a disappointment. With a reading list a mile long, I will not be adding his latest to it, so thanks for the review and heads-up.

  2. I suppose it’s always hard following up a masterpiece! I agree this isn’t as good as His Dark Materials but I still enjoyed it and rather took to Malcolm. I’ll still go on to read the next one.

    • Denzil

      Thanks Anabel for your comment. Perhaps the problem was the high bar that he set himself with His Dark Materials

  3. paulandruss

    Denzil. Thank you for this sharp minded (and it must be said) sharp tongued review. Loved your line about the plot being thin as a kindle! You haven’t put me off and I will read it.. but maybe now wait until it comes out in paperback. You are a astute reviewer and I like that you speak your mind, so I have no real hope I will find the book any better than you described, which as you said given the Dark Materials Trilogy will be a crying shame. Anyway thank you for tickling up my Saturday night with 3 strong and thought provoking (I have a feeling that phrase is going to appear on a lot in my comments here) pieces. I like what you have to say, even when I am not agreeing with all of it, and I like the way you say it. All my very best Paul

    • Denzil

      Thanks for your compliments Paul. I do sometimes find it difficult not to be too sharp-tongued. I guess it’s getting the balance between blandly accepting and overly critical. I have to say when I a reviewing a well-known and popular author I tend to be more critical.

      • paulandruss

        Denzil, I think it is a fine line between being honest and sounding over critical. You didn’t sound over critical or sarcastic. I thought you handled the review fairly and well.
        I would much rather have someone’s fair and honest opinion than hearing praises for everything,then read it and think it’s poor. Philip Pullman has done his work. Your review is your work. If you as a reviewer talked up something and it was not your honest opinion, it would not reflect on Pullman it would reflect on you.

        So give me honest reviews every day… none us us have to agree with you but it’s nice to be challenged and made to think.

        Anyway I like a bit of sharp-tonguedness (is that a word? It is now!) especially when laced with verve and wit, and when well written! All my best Paul

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