Review: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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*screeches excitedly*

Oh yes. Ohhhh goodness yes. I’ve been waiting so long for this book. A prequel series to His Dark Materials? Um, Sign. Me. Up. So, I preordered the hell out of it.

It took appoximately .5 of a nanosecond of listening to the audiobook sample for me to decide to upgrade to audio for this one. Soooo good.

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, 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 . . .

He came awake like someone struggling to swim to the surface of a lake of laudanum, where the strongest delights were the deepest and there was nothing above but cold and fear and duty.

His Dark Materials isn’t really a series that defines my childhood like it does for a lot of people. For me, that’s more of a Narnia, or a Wrinkle in Time, or even Lord of the Rings, as I read it first when I was nine. I was nearly twenty when The Amber Spyglass was published, and I didn’t read the trilogy until slightly after that. Nonetheless, it was a series that left a profound imprint on my life. I can still remember the exact point in time that The Amber Spyglass broke my feels into a thousand pieces. Nearly eighteen years later, I can still remember exactly how those books made me feel the first time I read them. I can remember how magical and mystical they were. It was one of those series.

So, I had slight some trepidation going into this one. Would it live up to that sort of awesomeness? Would it be really disappointing? It’s been so long… can this world seem fresh again? But, I decided instead to stop worrying and just go with it. And so, the audiobook began….

And it was one of those audiobooks that I just sat there and listened to because it was so enthralling. Clear my schedule, because I’m just going to sit here and stare into space for a while. Michael Sheen narrates this one absolutely perfectly and this was just thirteen hours of fantastic prose fantastically narrated. It was still mystical, and it was still just a little bit magical! It’s not really super fast paced, at least not until part two. It gets there though. It gets there, and I didn’t find that it plodded getting there… it just… goes at its own pace. But oh, it was still everything I wanted it to be.

This takes place ten years before Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass, whichever it was in your region). Malcolm Polstead is a boy who works in his parent’s inn near Oxford. Across the Thames from him is a convent where the nuns live. He often visits them by crossing the river in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage. Some strange men come calling at the inn, wondering if anyone knows if the nuns have ever had a baby as a visitor. The men are assured by everyone they meet that the nuns have not, in fact, ever had a baby visiting. Then, a few days after the men leave, rumour has it that the nuns have a visitor… a baby girl, named Lyra Belacqua. And as soon as he meets her, Malcolm swears to protect and serve her, no matter what happens. CUE HAPPENINGS.

It was really interesting getting this view of Lyra (and her even-more-awesome-as-a-baby daemon Pantalaimon) from the eyes of a different character. Things happen in this book that I absolutely didn’t expect, and I found myself getting a little anxious at times (when anxiety was warranted), and shocked, and appalled. This book gets really dark, especially for a book targeted mostly at young adults, and there are things like rape and death and murder in it. There’s also a few uses of the dreaded f-bomb too, and I guarantee you I will not be the only person to point this out (though I may be one of the only one who points it out as a thing I liked about the book).

As someone who started finding many of the YA books my teachers and peers recommended rather dull and started reading books by authors like Stephen King when I was 11ish, I can tell you that I appreciate a book that doesn’t assume that young people have never used the word fuck and will be irredeemably corrupted if they see it used in a setting and situation that… fuck, I would have definitely used it in the same situation. I appreciate a book in which things happen that might be frightening or controversial that doesn’t sugar coat those things for a younger target audience. I liked to be challenged with difficult and mature ideas and themes when I was young. I still do. 11 year old me would have fucking LOVED this book as much as I did.

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Those last couple chapters tho.

I’m really excited to find out what happens next. I really, really hope that Michael Sheen narrates the rest of this series. SO GOOD. 5/5 stars!

You can see this book on goodreads here, and grab a print copy here, or audiobook here.

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