Review of La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage [The Book of Dust]
by Philip Pullman
Intermediate, Middle School    Knopf    451 pp.
10/17    978-0-375-81530-0    $22.99
Library ed.  978-0-553-51072-0    $25.99
e-book ed.  978-0-553-51073-7    $11.99

Baby daemons are just as adorable as you’d think, and when it’s baby Lyra’s baby daemon we’re talking about — well, you could write a book. Set a few months after Lyra’s birth, this first volume of a planned prequel (Pullman calls it an “equel”) trilogy to His Dark Materials finds the kidnapped baby first dubiously protected in a convent and then in the care of a new protagonist, eleven-year-old Malcolm. Malcolm is an appealingly sturdy hero, not drawn with much nuance but a good boy who accepts the charge of protecting an infant whose importance is clear, although the to whoms and for whats provide a level of thematic suspense to match the considerable physical action of (the second half of) the book. Pursued by the chilling and mysterious Gerard Bonneville, Malcolm, his accomplice Alice, and the swaddled Lyra make their way via canoe (the “Belle Sauvage” of the title) to hoped-for safety, through an immense flood that has transformed the landscape of Oxford and its surroundings. Their journey contains both dangers and wonders as well as the more prosaic details of, say, finding more disposable diapers for the ever-pooping baby. Although the events of this book are set a decade before The Golden Compass (rev. 7/96), readers should start with that book first, as a good deal of the pleasure of this first Book of Dust entry comes from our familiarity with both the world’s conventions (daemons, alethiometers) and characters (Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, along with a host of new nasties). Identifying the age of this book’s intended audience is complicated: on the one hand the book is a thrilling middle-grade adventure; on the other, Pullman’s railings against the Church (here explicitly named as Christian as well as personified in variously deluded, corrupt, or debauched nuns) ask for a sophisticated reader — another reason to keep this for after The Amber Spyglass (rev. 11/00).

From the January/February 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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