Top positive review
AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Reviewed in the United States on October 21, 2017
PULLMAN, Philip. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. Knopf. 2017. 451p. $22.95.
Here’s an example of what makes Philip Pullman’s writing so special. It’s early in the first volume of his new fantasy trilogy, The Book of Dust. Malcolm, eleven years old and the son of an innkeeper, is the protagonist. He’s rock solid, good and decent, and observant beyond his years. As in the previous trilogy, His Dark Materials, Malcolm, like everybody in this imagined world, has his own daemon, an opposite sex animal familiar tied to him both geographically (if the familiar moves away from her master, the master must follow) and psychically. The choice of animal for one’s daemon tells something about one’s character. Later in the book, the evil Gerard Bonneville is revealed as having a hyena as his daemon, and unlike the closeness that exists between other masters and their daemons, Bonneville abuses his.
Now to the example I promised. Malcolm has just been permitted to see the little baby, six-months-old Lyra, who is being cared for in a nunnery near his father’s inn. Read on.
"Malcolm had never seen a baby at close quarters, and he was struck at once by how real she seemed. He knew that would be a silly thing to say, so he held his tongue, but that was his impression all the same: it was unexpected that something so small should be so perfectly formed. … Her daemon, the chick of a small bird like a swallow, was asleep with her, but as soon as Asta [Malcolm’s familiar] flew down, swallow-shaped too, and perched on the edge of the crib, the chick woke up and opened his yellow beak wide for food. Malcolm laughed, and that woke the baby, and seeing his laughing face, she began to laugh too. Asta pretended to snap at a small insect and thrust it down the baby daemon’s gaping mouth, which satisfied him, making Malcolm laugh harder, and then the baby laughed so hard she got the hiccups, and every time she hicked, the daemon jumped.
“ 'There, there,' said Sister Fenella, and bent to pick her up; but as she lifted the baby, Lyra’s little face crumpled into an expression of grief and terror, and she reached round for her daemon, nearly twisting herself out of the nun’s arms. Astra was ahead of her: she took the little chick in her mouth and flew to place him on the baby’s chest, at which point he turned into a miniature tiger cub and hissed and bared his teeth at everyone. All the baby’s dismay vanished at once, and she lay in Sister Fenella’s arms, looking around with a lordly complacency.
Malcolm was enchanted. Everything about her was perfect and delighted him."
That’s magical: simply presented but with an aura of wonder to it. And even as the scene is being set –a young boy seeing a baby for the first time—magic (the daemons) intrudes on the scene. You have also a sense of what Malcolm is like and a vague premonition that Lyra’s and Malcolm’s relationship will be important to the rest of the book, probably –possibly? —across the remaining books of this trilogy as well.
La Belle Sauvage (the name of Malcolm’s most treasured possession, a canoe) inhabits the same world of magic-physics as the preceding trilogy –sub-atomic dust leaking in through cracks of the world, scientists’ exploitation of the uncertainty principle, a weird but believable instrument that lies half way between astrology and physics and is called the alethiometer, which measures truth but uncertainly. The events of this series take place earlier than the happenings of the previous series but the enemy is the same: a devouring church hierarchy cracks down on heresy, cowing young and old as efficiently as ever did Torquemada. (“How can knowing something be sinful?” Malcolm asks one time.)
The first trilogy, His Dark Materials, came close to saving my sanity. It came out when I was leaving for Dubai to take a job twelve time zones away from my family. I was lonely! I needed something all-consuming to read to take my mind off my isolation. I finished the first installment on the plane ride over (twenty-one hours, seventeen on the plane); the second, soon after I arrived; and the third, as soon as it came out --in England, not the United States –it came out there earlier. Like those books, La Belle Sauvage offers small (turns of phrase, particular descriptions of places or people) and large (scary, powerful bad guys, and good guys with interesting characters and pasts; a large-scale, almost cosmic fight for noble goals) pleasures. It will keep the reader reading from start to end with no stop.