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Review: La Belle Sauvage - Philip Pullman

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy Published: Alfred A. Knopf, October 2017 My Rating: 2.5/5 stars

La Belle Sauvage unfortunately started 2019 off on a bit of a disappointing note for me. Anyone who knows me, know that I adore His Dark Materials. It’s one of those rare series that doesn’t only have a deep root of nostalgia, reaching back to some of my favorite childhood memories, but also held up to multiple rereads as an adult. There is so much magic and depth in it for readers of all ages. You can imagine my anticipation when Philip Pullman, after a 17 year hiatus, decided to return to my favorite universe and release a prequel (or in his own words “equel”) to it. Although there were some aspects of this novel I enjoyed, La Belle Sauvage unfortunately brought me little of the magic and none of the depth of the original trilogy.

Starting off on a positive note, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love spending more time in this world. Not only for the sake of nostalgia, but also because it remains one of the best “built” worlds in childrens literature, in my opinion. The best thing about it might be the “magic system”, although I’m not even sure if that’s the best term for the Daemon-thing. The idea of having anybody’s soul/character/emotional state visible in the form of a spirit animal is not only fascinating, but gives the reader a subtle glance into the characters state of mind, without the author having to spell it out for you. In His Dark Materials, one of the most interesting things to me was the difference between Child-Daemons and Adult-Daemons, which beautifully represent the changes that come with growing up. In La Belle Sauvage, Pullmann adds “Baby-Daemons” to this variation, which are not only adorable, but beautifully represent the mind of an infant here as well.

However, this is about where the relation to His Dark Materials, and with it my love for this book ends. One of His Dark Materials biggest strengths is its depth of character, story and world. Apart from the Baby-Daemon-thing La Belle Sauvage does little to add to this, and even regresses in some aspects. His Dark Materials has a quite philosophical and smart tone to go along with its “adventure story”, which makes it a great read for both children, as well as adults. La Belle Sauvage feels like “just an adventure story”, and not even one for all ages. It seems to be unsure about its target audience, lacking the depth of an adult/YA fantasy, but including too many explicitly dark scenes to qualify as a middlegrade. You could argue His Dark Materials was even darker in tone, but it was a more psychological and political darkness, rather than relying on violence and explicit descriptions as is the case here.

I’m usually hesitant when an author comes out with a spin-off series to previous successful work. It can be great if the author can to add to the story and/or world, however more often than not it just feels like an attempt to make more money of the original. The latter unfortunately was the case here. Part of me hopes the series will go back to its usual level of depth with the sequels, so I might still pick them up when my library gets them. I retain my faith in Philip Pullman as an author, and I’d love to see what else he can do with this world. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a good start for me.

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