Buying a sequel published several years after its wildly successful predecessor is a risky venture. The reader never knows whether the writer is simply trying to cash in on the popularity (aka ‘desperately attempting to revive a flagging ouevre’), or has produced a story that genuinely fits within the context of the predecessor. Examples can be found on both sides. Thus, going in to Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, first book in The Book of Dust (a prequel trilogy to the original His Dark Materials… trilogy), I didn’t really know what to expect. About a quarter of the way through, my concerns were assuaged, however. La Belle Sauvage is genuine.
La Belle Sauvage is the name of fourteen-year old Malcom’s canoe. Son of an innkeeper in an alternate-world (steampunk-ish) Oxford, he’s a smart, good-mannered young man who helps his father around the inn, as well as the nuns in the priory across the river when time allows. In the midst of serving a small influx of VIP guests at the inn, including some shadowy members of the Magisterium’s secret police, an infant is secretly brought to the nun’s priory for hiding and safe keeping. A tiny little girl named Lyra, Malcom falls in love with her while helping the nuns one day. Spring rains incessant, however, the river separating the inn from the priory swells, making Malcom’s trips across in La Belle Sauvage dangerous. When Malcom witnesses a rough man with a hyena as a familiar attempt to kidnap Lyra from the priory one night, the action is on. And when floods break out, it’s anybody’s guess as to the fate of the little girl. Malcom’s canoe may prove just as precious if she is to survive.
That summary ignoring a handful of side elements, Pullman does a good job of reminding the reader about the basic premises of the orginal His Dark Materials… trilogy while introducing new ideas and characters. With Lyra just an infant, its clear she will not be a main character in terms of action and dialogue, and Lord Azrael and Miss Coulter make appearances as her parents. But as a whole, the church’s secret police, a misanthropic and disgraced physics professor, the former British Lord General, a dish maid at Malcom’s inn, and a scholarly young woman working with the symbology of elethiometers are the primary dramatis personae, making for a new experience in Pullman’s Oxford.
In terms of sheer storytelling, La Belle Sauvage is superb. Action, or at least the sense of action, never flags, and never uses false drama to drive itself. Properly juggling plot development with pertinent exposition, action sequences with just enough details for character and setting, it’s a well-balanced story that begs the reader to continue reading. (And I would perhaps be remiss not to mention how Pullman integrates aspects of China’s Cultural Revolution to portray a scenario wherein children are recruited by the church as agents, reporting on their parents and teacher whenever dissident opinion is expressed. Well utilized, it is.)
In short, La Belle Sauvage is more goodness from the world—worlds, I suppose—of His Dark Materials… (though this novel stays only in one world). It reuses basic elements of the original trilogy while adding new elements to create an escalating, exciting storyline that reminds the reader what was so engaging of Will and Lyra’s story, all the while giving the reader a new experience. It will not explain away all the questions you may have had completing The Amber Spyglass. (In fact, it does some open-ended set up of its own in preparation for the coming two volumes in The Book of Dust prequel trilogy.) But it does at least offer a new perspective on some questions while developing others in a more concrete direction. Bottom line, if you liked the previous trilogy, there’s no reason not to start on the second. Pullman has returned to Dust with good reason—at least thus far. Two more books to go.