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La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (2017) 545 p.

belle sauvage

We waited twenty years for this?

Philip Pullman describes La Belle Sauvage, the first in a trilogy comprising what he calls The Book of Dust, as neither a “prequel” or a “sequel” to his Dark Materials trilogy – apparently the books will run before, during, and after that trilogy, chronologically speaking – and instead describes it as an “equal,” which is a clever turn of phrase and also a whopping fib. La Belle Sauvage is an unnecessary prequel if there ever was one.

The book takes place ten years before the events of Northern Lights, on the outskirts of Oxford, where innkeeper’s son Malcolm often does chores for the nuns of the priory across the river. One evening a group of important noblemen congregate at the inn and inquire as to whether the nuns have ever been known to take care of an infant – so soon the priory finds itself raising the baby Lyra, the protagonist of Northern Lights. The agents of the authoritarian Church (the least interesting part of the Dark Materials trilogy) are sniffing around for the baby, as is a mysterious man with a hyena for a daemon, and a great storm is building. In due course of events, Malcolm finds himself trying to bear Lyra to safety during a cataclysmic flood.

I’m one of the readers – who I suspect may be a majority – who adored Northern Lights, liked The Subtle Knife less so, and found by the The Amber Spyglass that the spark had sputtered out. While reading La Belle Sauvage it struck me that perhaps Pullman never fully grasped what made Northern Lights so compelling for so many young readers. It wasn’t the religious overtones (almost entirely absent from that book anyway); it certainly wasn’t Dust and fate and destiny and all that other philosophising that crumbles when you look too hard at it in daylight. It was the vibrant, creative and fascinating world that he introduced us to – a world a lot of readers have wanted to return to, but not if he merely treads the same ground. Consider how wildly inventive everything in Northern Lights was – the daemons, the bears, the Scandinavian witches, the clockwork beetles, the alethiometer. Every chapter seemed to have something new. But La Belle Sauvage contains nothing fantastic that isn’t a re-tread of the original trilogy or lazily lifted from English folklore.

La Belle Sauvage, most of all, is badly paced and understuffed. To compare: my hardback edition of Northern Lights is 403 pages long and contains Lyra’s world of Jordan College, her life and subsequent escape from Mrs Coulter in London, the world of the river-dwelling gyptians in the Fens, an Arctic expedition, the eerie polar research institute, the Scandinavian witch clans, the island of the armoured bears and Lord Asriel rupturing a gateway through the aurora into another world. My hardback edition of La Belle Sauvage is 545 pages long and contains… a priory on the riverbank, some amateur sleuthing, a big flood and a ridiculously persistent pursuer. (On a page-to-page level, the book is increasingly bogged down by Pullman’s inability to sort the wheat from the chaff when droning on about Malcolm’s physical actions while preparing his canoe, shifting his gear, packing his food, etc.) There are a handful of chapters towards the end dealing with the magically disruptive events of the flood, as Malcolm and his companions stumble across a few elements of English fairy mythology; but it’s too little, too late. Northern Lights was an epic in a single book, a grand story about a child’s first adventure out into the wider world; La Belle Sauvage, on the other hand, takes an awful lot of pages to tell us not very much.

I didn’t completely hate it, but I did find myself bored by it, much as I was bored by large parts of The Amber Spyglass. I’ll continue to read the rest of the trilogy as Pullman releases it, particularly because La Belle Sauvage strikes me as an egregious example of groundwork-laying, and perhaps the later books will improve. But by and large, I imagine a lot of fans are going to be very disappointed by this – and it certainly isn’t an “equal” to Northern Lights.

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The Physician by Noah Gordon (1986) 686 p.

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I have a very firm idea of what makes a good airplane book. It needs to be long. It can’t be too literary – there’s a time and a place for reading some beautifully written Midwestern family tragedy that won the Nobel Prize or whatever, but that time and place is not the middle of the night somewhere over the Pacific Ocean when your eyeballs feel like glue. So obviously it also needs to be good: compelling and readable, but not too fancy. The phrase “airport fiction” is usually tossed around as an insult, but I don’t see it that way. In the same way that people think writing children’s books is easy when it isn’t, authoring an undemanding yet engaging story which carefully treads the line between artful writing and accessibility is a very specific skill.

So: The Physician, a 600+ page whopper of a historical fiction novel which I’d never heard of until recently despite it being a bestseller – it turns out because, although it was written by an American and has an English protagonist, it was far more popular in continental Europe than in the Anglosphere. The Physician begins in London in the 11th century, when Rob J. Cole (a clanger of an Americanism, I know) is left orphaned after both his parents die. Gordon doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the time – Rob’s siblings are passed along by his father’s guild to various other families, separated from each other forever, and Rob himself, at less than ten years of age, is left as an apprentice to a barber-surgeon who roams around England selling snake oil to medieval rubes. Thus begins a picaresque coming-of-age story in which Rob is slowly inducted into the rudiments of medieval medicine, and – this isn’t really a spoiler, since it’s in the blurb – one day carries out a bold scheme to travel across Europe and study at the great, forbidden universities of Persia by disguising himself as a Jew.

I’m no historian, but I suspect a lot of details in this book are fudged or fabricated for fiction’s sake – and that’s fine. I could compare it to Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which takes place in more or less the same place and time period but does a far better job of making the 11th century seem like the grubby, barbaric and alien era it was; but I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. (And The Wake, in any case, is exactly the kind of experimental piece of literature I don’t want to read while I’m incubating jet lag in an unknown timezone.) The Physician falls short of being great literature, which airport fiction can in fact be capable of; my perennial example here would be Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. But that’s an above-and-beyond accomplishment, not a reasonable expectation. The Physician is entertaining and compelling and interesting and it never bored me. I enjoyed it a lot.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett (1994) 416 p.
Discworld #17 (Rincewind #5)

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Unlike a few of the novels surrounding it, Interesting Times is a book I have pretty strong memories of. It’s a compelling story, one of the few in the later series set in a genuinely foreign part of the Discworld, in which Rincewind is sent to the Agatean Empire – an amalgam of various Asian tropes and the home of his former friend and travelling companion Twoflower from the very first two books in the series – and finds himself thrust into a bubbling revolution while his old friend Cohen the Barbarian leads a band of geriatric warriors on One Last Job for a great heist in the capital city.

Why do I remember this book so well? Hard to say. Possibly because at this point in the series it feels like such a throwback to the early novels. It features characters we haven’t seen since Book 5, Sourcery, and takes place far from the now-familiar realm of Ankh-Morpork. But therein lies the rub.

Other re-readers have pointed out how culturally insensitive and borderline racist this book is – not in any sort of crude or deliberate way, for the most part, but in the manner Pratchett presents smart Westerners who roll in and solve the problems of naive Orientals, who are mostly just a series of cliches. Certainly if this book had been published twenty years later Pratchett would have been raked over the coals on Twitter.

I can’t disagree with these viewpoints, but for whatever reason, it didn’t strike me as quite so bad. Possibly it’s because Soul Music was such a lousy book that anything looks good in comparison. Possibly it’s because, throughout this whole re-read, I’m finding that Pratchett’s moral universe and common-sense sort of commentary is not as refreshing and wise as it seemed when I was a teenager, and therefore his clangers don’t stand out as much as they perhaps do for other fans. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy his writing; I do, very much so. But sometimes – not all the time, but certainly during parts of Interesting Times – it’s a bit more like listening to an old-timer at the pub or a grandfather talking about something at length. He’s entertaining, you love him, he’s a decent bloke and he makes good points – but “open minded” would not precisely be the first word to come to mind. He is an older man who has coalesced around a certain viewpoint of the world and isn’t going to change it, and he tends to return to the same points over and over again.

The general thrust of Pratchett’s political argument in Interesting Times, such as it is, is a fairly well-worn (and very middle-class English) attack on the champagne socialist kind of revolution, in which the masters are overthrown and the well-educated seditionists take their place and life for the surviving peasantry goes on more or less as before – if it doesn’t get worse. This is indisputably based on historical fact, especially in East Asia, and there is something to be said for barracking for the little guy. But it’s not a particularly fresh or compelling point, and this isn’t helped by transplanting it over a stew of Oriental cliches. Pratchett certainly tackles the issue far better on his home turf in the marvellous City Watch book Night Watch.

Nonetheless: I like Interesting Times. I found it fun. Certainly it’s better than the last few Rincewind novels were. Cohen’s horde of elderly barbarians have a great dynamic, especially with their adopted teacher Mr Saveloy, who is attempting to civilise them. There are some genuinely funny moments; I love the title of Twoflower’s book which reveals to Agateans the forbidden world outside their empire, and is thus banned as a seditionist tract: “What I Did On My Holidays;” I also love the concept of the five perpetually battling great families of the Empire, the Hongs, the Tangs, the Fangs, the Sungs, and the McSweeneys. (“Very old established family.”) The final setpiece, in which a terracotta army comes to life to battle the enemies of the empire, is a genuinely great visual scene.

So Interesting Times cops a lot of flak. But I don’t mind it. As I mentioned before, this is one of the last Discworld novels which takes place out in the broader, exotic Discworld – the only other, if I’m not mistaken, is The Last Continent, which takes place in pseudo-Australia and which I don’t recall anything about. Every other book retreats back into Ankh-Morpork or its surrounding English/European countryside; the Eastern European lands of Monstrous Regiment are about as far as Pratchett ever ventures again. Given the mixed results of Interesting Times, I’d say that’s a good thing. But it was nice for one last hurrah, even if it is a little ~*~Problematic~*~.

Next up we’re back in good old Ankh-Morpork, with Maskerade.

Re-reading Discworld index

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