Heaven: July Book Group - The Book of Dust Vol. 1 La Belle Sauvage

SarasaSarasa Shipmate
edited January 16 in Limbo
This months Ship's book discussion is on The Book of Dust Vol 1. La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. It is the first book in a trilogy, and is a prequel to Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy.

I don't think you need have read any of the books in that trilogy to enjoy this one, though many of the themes of that book are revisited here, and we meet some of the main characters from those novels at an earlier stage in their lives.

I'll post some questions on or about the 20th.

Comments

  • Tree BeeTree Bee Shipmate
    I read that a while ago, and although I don’t intend to read it this month I’ll watch this thread and may stick my oar in, so to speak.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Count me in; I've not actually read any of Pullman's so this will be a new direction for me.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Just bumping this up in case anyone else wants to join us.
    If you've read His Dark Materials but haven't read La Belle Sauvage is that becuase you just haven't got round to it yet or some other reason?
    I'm away for a few days on the 20th so will probably post some questions a little earlier.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    My (ordered) copy still hasn't shown up (promised for later this week), so I'm in but may be a little late to the discussion.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'm thinking of delaying posting questions till after I get back. I'm off on a retreat so not sure how much access I will have (or should have) to messing around on the internet.
    In the meantime anyone reading this who read His Dark Materials, but hasn't read La Belle Sauvage. Any particular reason why?
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    I just requested it on inter-library loan. Should arrive Thursday.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Great @Caissa. I'll post some questions on the 24/25th.

    Reading back my post above Caissa's I realise I wasn't exactly clear. What I meant was:
    In the meantime anyone reading this thread who read His Dark Materials, but hasn't read La Belle Sauvage. Do you have any particular reason why?

  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »
    Great @Caissa. I'll post some questions on the 24/25th.

    Reading back my post above Caissa's I realise I wasn't exactly clear. What I meant was:
    In the meantime anyone reading this thread who read His Dark Materials, but hasn't read La Belle Sauvage. Do you have any particular reason why?

    I'm just the other way round - I'm most of the way through La Belle Sauvage, but I've never read any other Pullman.

    And now I'm not sure I'll bother to; perhaps I'll feel differently in another hundred pages or so.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    To allow @Andras and @Caissa to finish the book and as I'll shortly be out of computer reach till next Tuesday I'm delaying posting any detailed questions till then, the 24th.
    I found re-reading the book an interesting experience. I was hoping the next book in the triolgy would have been published by now, so I could see whether some of my misgivings about this one were answered.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Finished it yesterday.

    There's a few quid I shan't see again...
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    edited July 2018
    Book arrived yesterday. Began reading this morning. Going to put a push on over the weekend. Any posted questions will not affect my reading.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    OK - back from my retreat (with a greater appreciation of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry), and ready to get this discussion rolling. feel free ignore these questions or add yor own.

    1a. If you've read theHis Dark Materials, was this a worthy prequel?

    1b. If you haven't read His Dark Materials did you manage to enter this world with its daemons and anabaric lights successfully?

    2. What did you make of religion in this world. Did you think Pullman was pushing his own 'new atheist' agenda or was he trying to give a balanced view of the pros and cons of religion?

    3. Any favourite characters or scenes?

    4. Will you be reading the next book in this triology?

  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »
    OK - back from my retreat (with a greater appreciation of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry), and ready to get this discussion rolling. feel free ignore these questions or add yor own.

    1a. If you've read theHis Dark Materials, was this a worthy prequel?

    1b. If you haven't read His Dark Materials did you manage to enter this world with its daemons and anabaric lights successfully?

    2. What did you make of religion in this world. Did you think Pullman was pushing his own 'new atheist' agenda or was he trying to give a balanced view of the pros and cons of religion?

    3. Any favourite characters or scenes?

    4. Will you be reading the next book in this triology?

    I do have some other thoughts, but for the moment I'll settle with these answers:

    1b - This is my first, though I'd heard about the dæmons and so on, so they didn't really come as either a surprise or a barrier. I know they're sometimes regarded as a masterstroke, but frankly they strike me as being a little de trop.

    2. Pullman, balanced about religion? Not likely, any more than C S Lewis was. In fairness, though, I must say that when the Church did have that sort of power in the early modern period, it behaved pretty-much as Pullman suggests it would. But Pratchett's Small Gods covers some of the same ground and does so rather better, I think

    3. Hannah Relf disappears too soon - a flaw in the plotting, I think. Otherwise they're pretty forgettable.

    4. I doubt it.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Thanks for the reply @Andras, I look forward to your further comments. Here are my thoughts:

    1a. If you've read His Dark Materials, was this a worthy prequel?
    I enjoyed this book the first time I read it, though I did have some reservations about the plot, the second time I was not so sure. I think the whole dæmon's thing worked well in Northern Lights where the seperation of a person from their dæmon was a whole big strand of the plot. In this book I was asking questions such as when does your dæmon appear, and who names them.

    2. What did you make of religion in this world. Did you think Pullman was pushing his own 'new atheist' agenda or was he trying to give a balanced view of the pros and cons of religion?
    I though Pullman was a lot more balanced in this book than he was in The Amber Spyglass the last book in the first trilogy. I nearly threw the book across the room because of Pullman dragging in pre-emptive absolution. At least some of the Saint Rosamund nuns seemed sympathetic. I thought Pullman was in danger of making Malcolm a character out of the sort of text the Saint Alexander league would have been keen on, with his going on about what an intelligent and brave boy he was, when he wasn't echoing William Brown.

    3. Any favourite characters or scenes?
    I liked Hannah Relf, and also felt she left the story rather too early. I approved of her letting Malcolm read her books becuase local libraries didn't exist. I know Pullman is keen on children having access to libraries (I'm a retired school librarian) so that was a yeah moment. On a first read I thought the first half was well plotted, though I'm not so sure after a second read. I did think the whole thing went awry with the second part with supernatural characters popping in and out. I'm assuming all will be made clear in the next book

    4. Will you be reading the next book in this triology?
    Yes, because I want to see if my reservations about the plot are addresssed.

    Did you notice Pullman's overuse of the word little? It was something that I particularly noticed, mainly as I read fast and tend to skim, but it annoyed my dyslexic husband no end.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Getting into a little more detail, I feel that there are serious problems with the plot, and that Pullman became aware of them as he was writing but wasn't able to address them (and perhaps hoped that no-one would notice).

    Most obviously, the book is unbalanced between the two halves. The second half is a mini-Odyssey, and just like Odysseus, the travellers encounter supernatural trials (I use the word deliberately) which test their courage. But I feel that Pullman isn't so much channelling Homer as C S Lewis - the echoes of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader seem a little too obvious to me.

    The first section is much stronger. Structurally it serves two functions: to introduce us to the main characters and their environment; and to delineate the purpose of the quest. I think it does this well, and I'm amused by Pullman's presumption in naming his heroine Alice (Oxford being so famous for another fictional Alice) and impressed by his wonderful villain Bonneville (who is surely a retread of C S Lewis' Unman / Watson in Perelandra).

    More thoughts when I have more time!
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Thanks for your thoughts Andras. I totally agree that the first half of this book was well plotted but then it (almost literally) lost the plot in the second half. I hadn't thought of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I'm not quite sure about the similarities, but that was a book that did the whole quest thing much better. It was almost like Pullman knew we couldn't just have Malolm, Lyra and Alice drift off in a boat and get to London without some sort of jepody etc etc, but he seemed a bit half hearted about it, and none of it seemed to fit together particularly well.
    I wasn't sure about Bonneville. He was a great villan, but I wanted to know more about what had sent him so totally mad.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »
    Then it (almost literally) lost the plot in the second half.

    Ah, that's the lovely thing about writing an Odyssey-lite, you don't have to worry about the plot too much, you just island-hop and make each island interesting in its own right - like the Dawn Treader, which is where I see the similarity - and occasionally refer back to the plot you laid out way back in Part One.

    But I think that Pullman spent too long putting his pieces on the board and in doing so made (I'm pretty sure) one incredible howler in his plotting. I'm just wondering if anyone else will spot it...

    I'm absurdly busy - I've got over a hundred pages of proofs on my desk, after they finally turned up a couple of months late - so I'll leave it there and see if anyone takes up the challenge - or maybe I've just made a howler of my own!
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'm not sure I've spotted the howler, as I've said I'm hoping the next book will convince me the second part of this one had a point, and ant queries will be resolved. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader and other Odyssey type stories there is usually a search for something, and or a reason to be certain places. In this book the characters just popped up, literally with the river spirt by the sluice gate (shades of Rivers of London there), and it seemed totally arbitary as to what sort of place they landed .
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate

    1a. If you've read the His Dark Materials, was this a worthy prequel?

    I have not read His dark materials.

    1b. If you haven't read His Dark Materials did you manage to enter this world with its daemons and anabaric lights successfully?

    I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction so I am used to jumping right into another world.

    2. What did you make of religion in this world. Did you think Pullman was pushing his own 'new atheist' agenda or was he trying to give a balanced view of the pros and cons of religion?

    Since this is fiction, balance on religion is irrelevant to me.


    3. Any favourite characters or scenes?
    Probably Hannah Relf. I am sure she will reemerge in the sequel.

    I think the first 2/3 of the book with its plotting and characterization is mostly there to set up the journey.

    4. Will you be reading the next book in this trilogy?

    Maybe.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    'Serious' fantasy worlds have to at least give the impression of being consistent to themselves; in a universe in which literally anything can happen, there can be no suspense if a sudden Deus ex machina can appear to solve whatever problem the characters have got into. (I say serious fantasy worlds specifically to exclude The Hitchhikers' Guide and suchlike, where the whole point of the humour is exactly that anything at all can happen - and does.)

    How does La Belle Sauvage hold up to this criterion? Very well in terms of the world at large, though I do wonder a bit about the sudden helpful appearance of a minor river-deity just at the moment when a sluice-gate needs opening.

    There needs to be some consistency of character, too; people literally have to act in character, or we can't believe in anything they do.

    So am I convinced by the nuns of Godstow? Not quite. In a world in which the Church is a byword for repression, their espousal of gentler virtues seems a little out-of-kilter, and I wonder if Pullman is letting us see 'good Christians' as a deliberate riposte to those who accuse him of demonising the Church and all its adherents.

    And what of Lord Asriel? He's a man who has killed his mistress' husband, presumably in a duel, and who seems to be driven by emotion rather than anything else. I wouldn't trust him an inch, and yet he's a close confidant of Lord Nugent, who is effectively running the resistance movement, and is even willing to 'case the joint' at Godstow for him. I don't believe it for a moment.

    And why on earth take Lyra to Godstow anyway? That might have passed muster had it been a donné at the beginning of the book, where an author can almost get away with murder (critics over the years have puzzled about the unusual circumstances of the entailment of the Bennets' house in Pride and Prejudice) but I really don't believe that even Asriel would be so foolish as to take Lyra there.

    And so I offer a slightly different - but much more consistent - version of Chapter II, and, indeed, of the whole of the rest of the book!

    The afternoon was fine enough for Lord Nugent and Lord Asriel to sit on the front terrace of the Swan With Two Necks, where they could watch the road for any inquisitive newcomers.

    Nursing his Tokay, Lord Nugent spoke first. 'The nunnery at Godstow seems secure enough and the Sisters have a good reputation locally, but of course one can't be sure how long they could resist a determined assault. And you must remember that they do ultimately come under the authority of the Church, and would have to give way to the Hierarchy's demands. Sanctuary there would offer no final protection; I've heard of some rather distressing incidents involving the Sisters of Holy Obedience at Wallingford.'

    'So what do you suggest? You know how the CCD are determined to find the child.'

    'Then take her to Jordan College instead and claim Scholastic Sanctuary. As a former Lord Chancellor I can assure you that it's been tested in the courts on many occasions and has been found to be rock solid. And it doesn't involve the Church in any way.'

    Lord Asriel smiled with relief. 'A brilliant idea, my friend; I shall do as you suggest. I think that it may well avoid a great deal of trouble for all concerned.'
  • Tree BeeTree Bee Shipmate
    I read this quite a while ago so have forgotten the details. I’ve read the other books in the Dark Materials series and enjoyed them, especially the daemons, though found them patchy, especially the Amber Spyglass.
    I was initially able to suspend my irritation with Pullman’s anti religion stance as the books are fantasy, but was disappointed when I realised this was his actual point of view.
    I found Malcom an engaging and resourceful character with whom I sympathised. There are similarities with The Dark is Rising I felt, particularly with the results of the extreme weather.
    The river journey started well, but when the magical /weird stuff began happening, I became detached from the storyline and couldn’t engage with it. I do remember the suspenseful ending though. I look forward to reading the next instalment.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I hadn't questioned Lyra being with the nuns at Godstow, just hoovered up the fact and read on. I know that by His Dark Materials she is living a semi-feral live in Jordan college. Perhaps it would have made more sense plot wise if Mrs Coulter had placed her there, maybe having some maternal feeling and thinking the nuns of the Holy Obedience weren't quite the ticket.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »
    I hadn't questioned Lyra being with the nuns at Godstow, just hoovered up the fact and read on. I know that by His Dark Materials she is living a semi-feral live in Jordan college. Perhaps it would have made more sense plot wise if Mrs Coulter had placed her there, maybe having some maternal feeling and thinking the nuns of the Holy Obedience weren't quite the ticket.

    It's an odd sort of slip for Pullman to have made.

    As it stands, it's a serious hole in the plot, but a couple of sentences of explanation would have smoothed it all away - You can only apply for scholastic sanctuary in person to the Master of the College, and he's away until November, that sort of thing. Clumsy, but I've seen far worse!

    You'd think that a copy editor would have spotted it, but clearly that didn't happen. A shame, really.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    The way Pullman wrote it Asrial didn't think about scholastic sanctuary until Malcolm mentioned it. (I think I've got that right). Maybe it was not something he'd thought of.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »
    The way Pullman wrote it Asrial didn't think about scholastic sanctuary until Malcolm mentioned it. (I think I've got that right). Maybe it was not something he'd thought of.

    But Lord Nugent would surely have mentioned it...

    It isn't a major problem, it's just that I seem to spend a fair bit of my life devising motivations for things that characters need to do, so I'm overly alert to a possible lack of them in what I read. It certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book, where I think the main problem is the rather episodic second part - though I don't see how it could be other than it is, really.

    It would film better than it reads, I suspect.
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