La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Vol. 1 of The Book of Dust) = 5/5

La Belle Sauvage is the first book of the long-awaited Book of Dust and is set in a world where everybody’s souls manifest as animals outside their bodies. No one’s alone, because they always have their soul to talk to. If this sounds familiar, it should–this book is set in the same world as Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass).

La Belle Sauvage focuses on Malcolm Polstead, an innkeeper’s son, and his adventures as he slowly becomes embroiled in a matter far larger and more complicated than he imagines. Malcolm works in his parents’ tavern, helps out in the kitchen of the convent across the river, and voyages around in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage. Malcolm’s life changes with two key events: he discovers a secret message not meant for him, and a baby, Lyra, is hidden at the convent. What follows is a whirlwind, thrilling adventure as Malcolm seeks to uncover the mystery behind the message he discovered and, as he grows more and more fond of baby Lyra, help keep the child safe from operatives of the Magisterium.

I found La Belle Sauvage impossible to put down: the characters are fascinating, Pullman’s writing is enchanting and eloquent as ever, and although it is set before the events in the His Dark Materials trilogy, it clearly stands alone as its own book. It is very dark in some places, but in the matter-of-fact way that indicates the author is just telling the truth as it is and not trying to soften anything for younger readers. There is also a well-written, quick shout-out to public libraries slipped in there, as Pullman is a huge advocate for public libraries in England–librarian friends, it’s worth reading to potentially use the next someone asks you, “Nobody reads anymore. Why do we even still have libraries now?”

I have waited a long, long time for the Book of Dust to come out–about 15 years, maybe more, if I remember correctly. When I finished La Belle Sauvage, I thought, “That was a very, very good book” and then found myself crying because it was everything I had hoped and dreamed it would be (and more) for the past 10+ years.

TL;DR: La Belle Sauvage is a engrossing adventure story with well-rounded characters, a beautifully constructed world, and elegant prose. Read it!

Review originally written 19 November 2017

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