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.