Monday, 15 October 2018

Book #73

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy...
Malcolm's father runs an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his dæmon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.
He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust--and the spy it was intended for finds him.
When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, Malcolm sees suspicious characters everywhere; Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; a gyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a dæmon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl--just a baby--named Lyra.
Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make chocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.

I feel I only enjoyed this as much as I did because I’ve only just finished reading His Dark Materials trilogy. La Belle Sauvage draws its charm by subtly referring to characters and plot points in the original books, and it’d be a bit of a push for this to stand on its own, even as the first instalment of a new trilogy.

In the main, Pullman’s characters were gorgeous. I fell in love with Malcolm who, despite being a pretty beige and unassuming pre-teen, has clear growth and increasing maturity as the novel progresses. His friend Alice, who is with him for the majority of the novel, is far more complex and easy to understand as a young woman. And Lyra as a giggling baby – although she couldn’t be characterised well at that age - seeing her and baby Pan was just lovely. Apart from these three, and their daemons (Ben was a love), there was nothing much in the way of characterisation to compel and engross us.

A young Dame Hannah (flashback to His Dark Materials) was introduced; curious, nervous, and at the beginning of her career, it was gorgeous to see her become involved with Malcolm, giving him guidance, support, and a good few different works of fiction to borrow. She becomes deeply involved in matters she’s unsure of, there’s a lot of foreshadowing on Malcolm’s fate, and then she completely disappears from the pages. I was desperate to find out what happened to her – did her books survive the flood?? – but the way she dissolved completely almost rendered her character utterly futile.

Pullman’s antagonist, a seemingly friendly man with a fierce three-legged hyena demon, started out as completely interesting, and yet his story fell flat for me too. Information on his life was slowly trickled through gossip channels, landing at my feet with glee. But no more. I didn’t find out what he was attempting, why he was the way he was, what exactly he had done in the past and how it was all connected. For both of the above characters, it’s possible the answers will come in the next instalment, however Pullman has stated this one will be more of a sequel to His Dark Materials. So many questions.

Although the story itself is beautifully and lyrically written, with the most stunning illustrations supporting Pullman’s words, the plot itself doesn’t have much going on. The first half feels pretty anticipatory; we see Malcolm go about his daily rituals whilst we’re safe in the knowledge shit is about to go down, but the second half of the novel is purely a mildly concerning boat ride. There’s no real terror (as, if you’ve read His Dark Materials, you know they will be okay), no direction, and an awful lot of changing nappies.

Pullman once again comments on theology and democracy, but definitely not in as hard-hitting a fashion as the previous trilogy. Dust was mentioned a few times, but I was pleased it wasn’t the main focus of the novel; I am sick of that glittery shit and its scientific causes. I was also pleased there were no roller-skating elephants in this one.

I’m unsure what else to say. Perhaps my complaints will be solved upon the release of the next novel, perhaps they won’t. I will always retain a love for Malcolm, however, and I really hope Ben settles into bulldog form. Goodnight, La Belle Sauvage. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Book #72

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Will is the bearer of the knife. Now, accompanied by angels, his task is to deliver that powerful, dangerous weapon to Lord Asriel - by the command of his dying father.
But how can he go looking for Lord Asriel when Lyra is gone? Only with her help can he fathom the myriad plots and and intrigues that beset him. 
The two great powers of the many worlds are lining up for war, and Will must find Lyra, for together they are on their way to battle, an inevitable journey that will even take them to the world of the dead.

I have no idea how I feel about the finale of His Dark Materials. This trilogy has been a hell of a ride through multiple universes, where I’ve met baffling and interesting characters (Thumbelina riding a dragonfly – yes; elephants on roller-skates – no), and fallen deeply in love with my protagonists and their dæmons. It’s difficult for me to bash the series as a whole, but there were parts of the final novel that I simply couldn’t make myself enjoy.

Firstly, in my review of The Subtle Knife, I stated I was hoping for a reduction in the theological turn the plot was beginning to take. This dream did not come true, and I was embroiled in battles and plans to kill God and build a new heaven. I could not get on board with this, not for religious reasons, but for the way in which this factor seemed to steal away from Pullman’s fantasy. Any chapter which involved the Church, the angels, or Lord Asriel’s plans, dulled my curiosity completely. It has taken me a while to finish the novel for this reason.

And secondly, I felt even less spellbound than I did during The Subtle Knife. There was nothing to fill me with wonder and disbelief, nothing to completely tickle my brain with incomprehensible new ideas or situations. A large section of the book was devoted to battle, to zeppelins and gyrocopters, and trying to escape the bad guys. It dragged on. I much preferred the deceit, the sneaking around, the plotting, the discovering, and the things falling into place.

I think Pullman’s downfall has been writing such a stunning first instalment that its shine simply couldn’t be matched. Everything he introduced in Northern Lights was utterly magical, engrossing, and compelling. Everything since has been akin to buying a fake handbag – it’s all right, but poor in comparison to the original.

Still, there were parts I absolutely adored – the progression of Lyra and Will’s relationship, the world of the dead, Lee Scoresby! And that ending – just stamp all over my heart, why don’t you?

I have definite mixed feelings about this series, but I’ll always hold a love for Lyra and Pan. Let’s see if Pullman can bring out more of his imaginative skill (and hopefully fewer angels) in La Belle Sauvage. 

Monday, 1 October 2018

Book #71

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Will is twelve years old and he's just killed a man. Now he's on his own, on the run, determined to discover the truth about his father disappearance.
Then Will steps through a window in the air into another world, and finds himself with a companion - a strange, savage little girl called Lyra. Like Will, she has a mission which she intends to carry out at all costs.
But the world of Cittàgazze is a strange and unsettling place. Deadly, soul-eating Spectres stalk in its streets, while high above, the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. And in the mysterious Torre degli Angeli lurks Cittàgazze's most important secret - an object which people from many worlds would kill to possess.

Although The Subtle Knife is the second instalment in the trilogy, Pullman tugs the direction of our journey strongly on to another path. Everything we’ve learned and become accustomed to in Northern Lights feels like an old dream, as new and baffling components are introduced, and we’re transported across a multitude of different worlds. Most of all, Lyra appears very little, as our new protagonist takes the helm.

It’s like a completely new story, which is a genius move in maintaining our wonder and awe in the worlds Pullman has built. Each chapter differs in its narrative, giving us a rounded view of Pullman’s cast of characters and their experiences. Multiple voice always gets a big tick from me, and I was particularly pleased to see the majority of chapters were fixed upon side characters, rather than our two protagonists.

Yet, The Subtle Knife felt slightly lacking in the creation of an utterly spellbound feeling in me, in comparison to what Northern Lights evoked. Pullman delves heavily into physics and religion; in explaining the first in depth, and in implying the problems with the second, he refuses to patronise his readers, but also turns a deep fantasy series into a philosophical religious commentary. I can accept armoured bears and elephant type things on wheels, but as soon as angels are mentioned, I am completely disengaged.

I loved the introduction of Will, of the knife, and even of the biblical elements three of the characters symbolised. I’m just unsure of the religious path the plot is taking, to the detriment of the genre. Nevertheless, this is the middle book in a trilogy, always difficult to review, and sometimes even difficult to understand. I shall focus my attention on The Amber Spyglass with fingers crossed for a reduction in theological debate. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Book #70

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

When Lyra's friend Roger disappears, she and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, determine to find him. 
The ensuing quest leads them to the bleak splendour of the North, where armoured bears rule the ice and witch-queens fly through the frozen skies - and where a team of scientists is conducting experiments too horrible to be spoken about.
Lyra overcomes these strange terrors, only to find something yet more perilous waiting for her - something with consequences which may even reach beyond the Northern Lights.

The first and only time I read this series was as a fourteen year old girl. Seventeen years later, with the arrival of La Belle Sauvage, I am embarking on this journey again, no longer a fresh and lovely fourteen, but a bitter and miserable thirty-one. I’ve gone from resembling Lyra, to resembling Mrs Coulter minus the monkey. But some books can transcend your years - I loved this as a young woman, and utterly cherished it as an old one.

Pullman’s first notable skill here is his ability to widen the appeal of what is essentially a young adult novel. For the young, it’s a story of adventure, of overcoming adversity, of survival, of fuck the grown-ups and their macabre plans. For the old, it takes on a far more philosophical approach, a symbolic study of childhood, free will, and hierarchical horrors. And for all of us, every single one of us, Pullman delivers a beautiful and compelling story in a curious and enchanting world. This is the embodiment of fantasy for me – you can stick your Lord of the Rings where the Northern Lights don’t shine.

The universe Pullman introduces to us holds a number of interesting factors; one of the first we come across is the existence of dæmons. Each human has a creature attached to them, as though with an invisible cord. This creature is their companion for life, and also, in effect, their soul living outside their body. Children’s dæmons have the ability to change form at will until the child comes of age, when the dæmon will settle into a fixed form. I adored this concept; the idea that your dæmon doesn’t settle its form until you’re secure in your adulthood; the assumption that no child understands who they are, hence ever-changing dæmons, and adults absolutely do understand themselves, hence fixed dæmons; the way the children’s dæmons flicked from shape to shape dependent on the child’s mood; the ability to judge an adult by which form their dæmon has fixed upon – this list is endless. Dæmons are an amazing plot device, and god help me, I want one.

In terms of the story itself, Pullman completely nails everything. The pace is excellent, the world-building exquisite, and the characters deeply weaved and utterly gorgeous. It isn’t often I love a character so much that my heart wrenches in pain, or leaps in joy for them, but I felt everything here, and almost had a few embarrassing outbursts in public whilst reading.

I’m so pleased to find this novel delights my heart as much as it did many years ago. It’s amazing how an author can evoke the same feelings in you, regardless of whether you’re in your teens or your thirties.

Now it’s time to reacquaint myself with Will. 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Book #69

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

1645. When Alice Hopkins' husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.
But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women's names.
To what lengths will Matthew's obsession drive him? And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

This novel is based on the true story of Matthew Hopkins, a man who tried women as witches in the seventeenth century, and sent over one hundred of them to their deaths. Realising this fact makes the novel all the more harrowing, despite Underdown having fictionalised his personal life somewhat.

Witches were identified by completely ridiculous measures; is your neighbour a wee bit eccentric, likes solitude a bit too much, maybe she has some mental health problems? Witch. Has she wronged you in some way, leaving you with a debt to settle? Call her out as a witch!

Hopkin’s reign of terror left Essex excited and terrified. It’s unsettling to think how this could be allowed to happen, yet Underdown highlights the power of hysteria, rumour, and religion very well. There’s a constant dark undertone throughout the novel which doesn’t allow the reader to relax for a moment. And in no way does Underdown shun the idea of the supernatural; there are some inexplicable moments which only create more doubt and dread, in both the characters and ourselves.

Although the first and final thirds of the novel were perfect in setting up and boxing up the whole ordeal, there was something lacking in the middle third which I just can’t really put my finger on. Perhaps I would’ve liked (and I use the word very lightly) more information on the accused women and what they were going through; some more depth in the townspeople and their reactions to the situation. In historical novels focusing on this type of barbarism, I think it’s important to focus on the human element as much as possible - the further away we get, the more difficult it is to understand these unspeakable acts happened to real people, the same as any of us.

I enjoyed this, and it’s clear to see Underdown has done extensive research on Hopkins and his campaign. The final sentence of the novel dropped my heart to the floor so quickly, I thought I’d lost it. Very, very clever.