La Belle Sauvage

I finished Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage, first in his new Book of Dust prequel series. In some sense it's more of the same from the first series, His Dark Materials. England has been corrupted by the malicious, oppressive influence of a government beholden to a Geneva-based religion that might be construed as Nazi Catholicism. Mostly the people live in fear and hope to be left alone, but there are some stout-hearted native elements fighting against the regime. And Lord Asriel from the first series is even now pursuing his grandiose anti-deity program without anyone yet knowing what he's doing.

After some initial set-up, this volume is mostly a flight-and-journey story similar in some ways to those early chapters of the Lord of the Rings where the hobbits are fleeing the Nazgul but haven't yet made it to Rivendell, or indeed, even to Bree and Aragorn. There is another echo of LoTR here as well, the notion of a magical, essential England (here called Albion), derived originally I think from William Morris's distilling of various pre-Norman myths and folklore. This is never overt in Tolkien because after all there is no England in Middle Earth, but every lyrical word about the delights of the Shire and the hobbits' way of life is a paean to an imaginary Olde England that never existed in the real world.

The two main characters, young Malcolm and Alice, are carrying the infant Lyra (who might as well be the One Ring except for the need for nappies and powdered milk). They are caught up a vast, catastrophic and magical flood of the Thames, making their riverine way from Oxford to London, trying to keep her out of the hands of several groups of bad guys. The chief villain here is very memorable and horrible, but nevertheless pitiable and sad in his way. The allegory of the anima/animus daemons allows the superficially attractive Bonneville to be depicted as horrifyingly evil merely through the unconcealable malice of his daemon. 

If you liked the first book of the Golden Compass you'll like this book as well. The main character, Malcolm, is resourceful and sympathetic, but for me Alice is much more attractive. Alice is a lower-class adolescent girl living in this oppressive and retrogressive society which demeans everyone in general, but as you might expect is especially demeaning towards women. She is extremely bitter and even sullen at times, but in the circumstances of her life and what she's subjected to this isn't a negative at all; she has every right, and she overcomes her own attitudes when she needs to. And despite total lack of chosen-ness and absence of any special training or power whatsoever, Alice is nevertheless valorous and independent, facing down any number of challenges ranging from the quotidian to the horrible and otherworldly. I wanted to cheer her on all the way through the book. "La Belle Sauvage" is the name of Malcolm's canoe, and the epithet might also be applied to a Fairy-queen character in the novel, but I'd say Alice is also a belle sauvage because she defies authority, hierarchy, and paternalism throughout. One way or another she's always carrying chains around, but she wants to be free, and as a reader you'd like to her be strong and free enough to be wild.