Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book 187: La Belle Sauvage

"The steamy, noisy kitchen was the safest place in the world, it seemed to him. Safety had never been anything to think about before; it was something you took for granted, like his mother's endless, effortless, generous food, and the fact that there would always be hot plates ready to serve it on."

Dates read: November 2-6, 2017

Rating: 8/10

I tend to think that it's the books we read as adolescents that often end up making the biggest impact on us. It's an age where we're still impressionable, but able to handle sophisticated concepts, and a book that makes the right connection with you can totally blow your mind in a way that you just don't experience much (if ever) with books you read later in life. And I've found that even if I read those books again later and objectively maybe they're not especially good, it doesn't really matter. I still love them.

One series of books that has held up spectacularly well, even from an objective standpoint, is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. I recently revisited them as audiobooks and they remain just wonderful. There's always a tension I feel when a beloved book gets revisited by its author after a long time for any sort of companion piece...what if it's just not as great? So I was both excited and wary when Pullman announced a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, set in the same world as the original one, and then again when I finally held a copy of the first volume, La Belle Sauvage, in my hands.

La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, as original heroine Lyra Belacqua is just a baby in this one. Our new protagonist is Malcolm Polstead, a relatively normal preteen boy who goes to school, helps out in his parents' pub, likes to explore on the local river in his boat, and sometimes helps out at the nunnery down the road. Two events happen in a short period of time that change his life: the first is the arrival of baby Lyra at the nunnery, and the second is an assassination he sees while boating. Both of these bring the outside world and its rapidly changing politics much closer to home, and soon even school isn't safe. And then, as an epic flood rages, Malcolm, along with Alice, the older girl who works for his parents, find themselves racing to protect Lyra from danger.

This book does a great job of introducing its world (an alternate universe England known as Brytain, which I think is the first time I've seen it given a name, but I haven't read the novellas yet) to a first-timer, as well as providing backstory on characters and situations that returning readers already know: the rise of the power of the Church, Farder Coram, althieometers, Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter. And while Malcolm is about the same age as Lyra was at the beginning of The Golden Compass, and they both go on an adventure over the course of the book, they're not especially similar characters: while Lyra was high-spirited and bold, Malcolm is quieter and more solitary. He's got a decent amount of pluck, though, and makes an engaging hero that you get emotionally invested in.

I can't really evaluate this book from the perspective of someone who hasn't read the original series yet, but because of the way that the series is structured (this book is first in time, and then the original series, and then apparently the next book in this series will be a sequel to the original series), I'm going to go ahead and recommend it as a good starting place for people who are intrigued by it. The book is appropriate for older kids, but the series eventually takes a strong theological bent which may go over the heads of less mature ones, and may prompt discussions that parents should be ready for. If I'm being perfectly honest, I didn't think this book was as strong as The Golden Compass (I think that one did a better job of world-building), it might not be a fair comparison because that's one of my favorite books of all time. That being said, this is a very good book and an engaging adventure that has me longing for the next one already!

One year ago, I was reading: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town

Two years ago, I was reading: The Good German

Three years ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed

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