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Philip Pullman returns to the world of The Golden Compass with the thrilling La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman Knopf Books for Young Readers
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which began with The Golden Compass more than 20 years ago, is the kind of fantasy series that digs its claws into you and never quite lets go. It’s a lavish, wildly compelling fantasy saga, with witches and zeppelins and talking polar bears — and it’s a fervent repudiation of what Pullman seems to see as the repressive forces of Christianity, a kind of Paradise Lost for teenagers.

When you read His Dark Materials, at first you fall in love with the idea of the daemon, a kind of external manifestation of the soul that expresses itself as a talking animal. And you fall in love with watching Pullman’s scrappy, clever heroine, Lyra, battle her way past immeasurably powerful adults. But what gives the trilogy its staying power is realizing that Lyra is battling against powers that want to teach her to hate her body and deny an essential part of her soul. That’s what most people remember about the trilogy after they’re done with it, and what makes it stay in their minds long after the first reading.

Now, 17 years after Pullman completed the trilogy with 2000’s The Amber Spyglass, he’s returning to the world and the rich mythology he created with a new trilogy, The Book of Dust. The first volume, La Belle Sauvage, just came out — and it’s stunning. It’s shaggy and messy, less mythic than the previous trilogy and more magic. If His Dark Materials is Paradise Lost for teenagers, then The Book of Dust is teenage Faerie Queene.

La Belle Sauvage isn’t a myth. It’s a fairy tale.

Pullman has described The Book of Dust as an “equal” to the first trilogy, not taking place altogether before or after Lyra’s adventures but all around them. La Belle Sauvage, however, is firmly in the prequel territory: Lyra is 6 months old the whole way through, and slowly making her way to Oxford’s Jordan College, where she’ll have her unconventional childhood and where we’ll meet her at the beginning of The Golden Compass.

Taking Lyra to Jordan is Malcolm Polstead, an 11-year-old boy with an orderly soul and an inquisitive nature. Malcolm is passionately devoted to carpentry; he’s the kind of kid who plays around with inventing a new and more secure kind of screw in his spare time. He’s also the kind of kid who spends his spare time reading works of theoretical physics — or, in this Church-dominated world, experimental theology.

And Malcolm adores baby Lyra. When he sees her menaced by the shadowy Gerard Bonneville — a mysterious man with a laughing hyena daemon, one of Pullman’s creepiest villains — he snatches her up from the convent where she’s been dwelling, setting off to deliver her to safety without a second thought. But unluckily for Malcolm, Oxford has been racked by a flood of Biblical proportions. Thank goodness he has a canoe, the titular Belle Sauvage, and like any child obsessed with mechanics, he keeps his vehicle of choice in perfect repair.

Accompanied by a sarcastic and viciously practical teenage girl named Alice, Malcolm and Lyra set off on the turbulent waters of the flooded Thames, past ever eerier enchanted islands. They’re not dealing with the witches and the armored bears of His Dark Materials here, but with fairies and river spirits, with fairy tale villains who can only be defeated if a child is clever and tricky enough. But Malcolm, like all of Pullman’s young heroes, is plenty tricky.

The philosophical underpinning of this book is deeply concerned with how authoritarian regimes take power

While the structure of La Belle Sauvage is less overtly devoted to religion than was His Dark Materials (no angels appear, and there’s much less Scriptural quoting), it has plenty to say about the newly relevant question of authoritarian regimes and how they take control.

By the time of His Dark Materials, Oxford is fully under the thumb of the Magisterium, which operates more or less like the Vatican during the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition all rolled into one: It controls all scholarly inquiry, punishes heresy without mercy, and kidnaps and tortures children with impunity. But in La Belle Sauvage, the Magisterium is still consolidating its power, and Brytain — the rough equivalent of our Britain — still has its own government, actively fighting to remain distinct from the Magisterium.

The Magisterium’s most chilling weapon in its quest for domination is its League of St. Alexander. The League is a secret society for children whose members wear badges and attend extra church services, and they’re encouraged to inform on any adults they catch doing anything sinful or heretical. At Malcolm’s school, the headmaster tries to forbid his pupils from wearing the badges on school property. The students, drunk with power, promptly inform on him; he’s taken into the Magisterium’s custody and never heard from again.

So what Malcolm is fighting against is less spiritual oppression than it is political oppression. He doesn’t have any of the theological conversations about the nature of the body, soul, and ghost that Lyra and fellow protagonist Will have in His Dark Materials, but he thinks a great deal about what it means to be free to think and study and speak as he chooses, and how absurd it is that a bunch of silly little boys from his own school might be granted the power to deny him that freedom.

La Belle Sauvage shares, then, the philosophical backbone that makes His Dark Materials so ambitious and iconic — while also expanding on the mythology of Pullman’s worlds in subtle and fascinating ways. The fairies we meet are new additions to the world, but they feel ancient and unknowable, like the witches but wholly unique.

And most importantly, the characters of La Belle Sauvage are as singular and lovable as the characters of His Dark Materials. Bitter, sarcastic Alice is slightly underdeveloped in this volume (there’s a troubling scene in which her sexual assault becomes important mostly for how Malcolm reacts to it; Pullman can and should do better than that), but her sour, cranky voice is profoundly endearing. And Malcolm is a distinct protagonist, lacking the pride and flair of Lyra or the mournful brutality of Will, but with a quiet stubbornness and love for order all his own.

Reading La Belle Sauvage, you’ll remember again why you fell in love with The Golden Compass. Pullman has returned to his old world and expanded it, bringing in the old elements his readers loved but approaching everything from a new angle. This book can stand on its own or in the context of what came before it — and it’s also a profoundly compelling foundation for a new trilogy.

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