Published by Random House on October 19th 2017
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Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his daemon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them; a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .
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? His 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.
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.
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