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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage is the first of a trilogy of fantasy novels by Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass and the other His Dark Materials novels. It was published in October 2017 in ebook and print formats in English, marketed as an "equel" to The Golden Compass: the Book of Dust trilogy takes place before and simultaneous to the events of the narrative in Pullman's other works.

La Belle Sauvage is definitely a prequel, though; the entire narrative takes place during Lyra Belacqua's infancy, and while she does feature in this novel as a significant character - well, more of a MacGuffin, but a character nonetheless - she is still just a baby, and the main character is an eleven-year-old boy, Malcolm Polstead, and his daemon named Asta.

Malcolm is the son of an innkeeper in a small town in England, proximal to Oxford. He is a clever, observant, acutely pragmatic, hypermoral child who daily volunteers his services as an assistant to the nuns and groundskeeper of a nearby priory. Over the course of the novel, Malcolm becomes semi-voluntarily recruited into the espionage activities of Oakley Street, the British spy organisation working against the Church, in resistance to the Church's inquisition-like recent behaviours toward the general public. Malcolm uses his beloved canoe, for which the novel is titled, to travel up the Thames river to visit his academic friend, Doctor Hannah Relf, and bring her information from his observations of his father's tenants, many of whom are politically significant (and often there on nefarious business).

Alongside the social threat presented by the Church, there is also a natural threat building up over the course of the narrative: a cataclysmic flood sweeping the Thames and its surrounding lowlands. Civic-minded Malcolm recognises the danger of the interminable rainfall and rising river levels, but few adults are interested in his meteorological advice... and along with the flood come a host of mysterious, magical, and fey occurrences, not accounted for by either science or the Church, and which Malcolm must navigate in order to conduct himself and infant Lyra to safety, assisted only by Alice, the surly and hostile scullery maid working at the inn.

La Belle Sauvage is a cautionary tale for children, disguised as a coming-of-age novel and a fairy tale in one. Malcolm's classmates join a fanatical religious organisation that encourages them to report on the "sins" of their friends and family, a frightening scenario any adult will easily recognise as resembling other similar organisations which have developed throughout history during the months leading up to World Wars. There are other adult fears presented to the young reader in a way that makes the threat fully felt, even if the underlying nature of the threat is not yet apparent to a child: the main human antagonist of the novel is a sex offender with an affable, persuasive demeanour. Numerous adults are shown being charming but dangerous, and others are shown being kind but untrustworthy out of their own survival self-interest. The message to a young reader is clear: strangers can be more harmful than they seem, even when they are being nominally helpful, and so it is always necessary to approach stranger encounters with caution and critical thinking. Malcolm, utterly practical and a quick study of human nature, talks about how uncomfortable he feels around dangerous but charming adults, to adults he can trust; this counters the "be cautious of strangers" admonition with a recommendation to tell trusted adults about these concerns. The adults Malcolm consults for help are not always necessarily in a position to give him all the help he needs, but they do strive to protect him to the best of their ability. This is the third significant message offered to the young reader: adults are not omnipotent, even if they are profoundly moral and good, and sometimes the only help they can offer is advice or a place to hide out for a few minutes while immediate danger passes by.

Despite the heaviness of the material, this novel manages to maintain a fairly light-hearted tone throughout, and the pace is fast and inexorable, like the flood that moves Malcolm's canoe down the swollen river. The prose is well-suited to being read aloud, such as for a bedtime story to read to children, but the quality is still high enough (and the characters fascinating enough) to make La Belle Sauvage an excellent read for adults as well. If you enjoy any of Pullman's other work, you will certainly enjoy this one.

Iron Noder 2017, 14/30

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