Robyn Reviews: La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage is the first book in Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy – the prequel trilogy to his ever-popular His Dark Materials. As someone who grew up with His Dark Materials, I was excited to return to the world of daemons and magic – but also wary. Spinoff series are famed for never being as good as the originals. Given that, La Belle Sauvage was a pleasant surprise.

The book follows Malcolm Polstead, the eleven-year-old only child of a pub landlord. Malcolm is an intelligent and inquisitive child, well-mannered and keen to help everyone he comes across. He goes to school but understands that education is not really an option for him – he’ll take over the pub from his father or go into a trade instead. When he can, Malcolm volunteers at the local priory, helping the nuns in the kitchen and catching them up on all the news he overhears at the pub. However, his life is turned upside down by the sudden arrival of a baby at the priory – Lyra, the daughter of Lord Asriel, hidden away for her own safety.

La Belle Sauvage is split into two parts, unevenly weighted. The first follows Malcolm’s life in Oxford – his friendship with the nuns, his work at the pub, and the growing influence of a mysterious branch of the Church at his school. In my opinion, this is the stronger part. There’s less otherworldly fantasy, with the focus instead on building the characters and community setting. Malcolm is an absolute sweetheart, fiercely intelligent but completely naïve in the ways of the world. It’s a pleasure spending time with such a nice character. His relationship with the nuns – especially Sister Fenella – was heartwarming, and I loved his interactions with Dr Relf. There are regular cameos from characters we know from His Dark Materials – Lord Asriel, Marisa Coulter – but no real knowledge of the original trilogy is required. The feel is very different, and it’s all the stronger for it.

The second part is shorter, faster, and action-packed. This is where the fantasy element really comes into play, with witches and fairies and hidden lands. Despite being a huge fantasy fan, I thought this was the weaker part of the book. Malcolm continued to be a delight, and his evolving relationship with his companion, Alice, was interesting and well-handled, but the additional elements after such a slow, steady start were confusing and almost felt rushed. The writing was as great as ever, but the switch of pace was jarring and disconnected me from the story – I wasn’t as invested in some of the dramatic moments as I should have been. This would have worked better as an entirely slower book – stretched out like an epic fantasy – or an entirely faster book, with less of the build-up in Oxford and a tauter overall feel.

That being said, I enjoyed reading, and I think it’s a strong addition to the canon. Philip Pullman is undoubtedly a fantastic writer and he’s managed to create a collection of new characters that I care about just as much as the originals – a difficult feat in a spinoff series. I’m excited to see what happens to Malcolm and Alice – and, of course, their daemons Asta and Ben – next. (After all, we already know what happens to Lyra).

 

Published by David Fickling Books (Penguin)
Hardback: 19 October 2017
Paperback: 6 September 2018

Book Review: Wed Wabbit

Wed Wabbit, by Lissa Evans, is a children’s story laced with humour and riddles. Its protagonist is Fidge, a young girl who is still struggling to cope with the death of her father. Grief is not an explicit plot thread but goes some way towards explaining why Fidge acts as she does. Her mother is doing her best under difficult circumstances, again not something the children reading this tale may take away. They will likely enjoy the adventure and more fantastical elements, especially when our heroes must do battle in a popular fictional world.

Ten year old Fidge is tired of reading the same storybook, night after night, to her four year old sister, Minnie. But all Minnie wants is The Wimbley Woos. These tales are set in a colour coded community of creatures shaped like dustbins with limbs, who each have different skills and use them to help the others. Fidge would far rather be packing for their upcoming outdoor activity holiday. She is trying out a high-density packing technique to minimise her required luggage. Unlike her mother and sister, Fidge is organised.

The next day there is some last minute shopping to be done. Fidge has been promised a pair of flippers but first Minnie needs sandals. As usual on these excursions there are distractions. They run out of time. Angry that she is the one who ends up carrying the plethora of toys Minnie insists on taking with her everywhere, which she then drops when something exciting catches her eye, Fidge lashes out in anger with devastating consequences.

All of this means that Fidge must go and stay with her annoying cousin, Graham, who is scared of: stairs (in case he falls down them), toast (in case he chokes on a crumb), insects (in case he catches a tropical disease) – the list goes on. His parents pander to his phobias and talk of little other than their concerns for their son. Fidge doesn’t believe Graham has anything wrong with him that couldn’t be cured with a change of attitude. Graham regards Fidge as far below his superior intellect.

Fidge is still carrying Minnie’s toy collection including her favourite bedtime companion, Wed Wabbit, which Fidge hates. The cousins argue, the toys end up at the bottom of the cellar stairs, Fidge realises Minnie will need Wed Wabbit but a massive thunderstorm cuts off power. And then, because this is what most of the story is about, the cousins end up in the land of the Wimbley Woos.

Although filled with feats of derring-do and puzzle solving, this is a gently told tale injected with a great deal of wit. Fidge needs to solve a riddle if she is to bring Wed Wabbit home. Wed Wabbit is not so sure that this is what he wants as he is angry, which puts the entire land in danger. Even with her detailed knowledge of the Wimbley Woos’ skills, Fidge struggles to get them working as a team. And then the rainbow land starts losing its colour.

There are obvious (at least to an adult) uplifting messages underlying the tale. These do not detract from the fun way the challenges being overcome are portrayed. All the characters, even the initially annoying ones, have their part to play. A great deal is learned by Fidge and Graham – without too much moralising.

Wed Wabbit is published by David Fickling Books.

My copy was borrowed from my local library.