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Archive for the ‘Kidult Fiction’ Category

Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust Trilogy Debuts with La Belle Sauvage

First, a checklist:

Daemons and more daemons? Check.
Appealing child protagonist? Check.
Experimental theology? Check.
Raging maniacal perverted genius on a your character’s trail? Check.
Nappies? Uh…nappies?

I’ll explain, but first:

Seventeen years ago, British writer Philip Pullman made a big splash with his fantasy novel The Golden Compass. Set in an alternate version of Oxford, England, it featured an endearing (Shall I say “spunky?” Perhaps I shall…) girl protagonist named Lyra Bevacqua who navigates a quasi-steampunk world with an armored polar bear for a companion, bearing a magical instrument called an alethiometer (the “compass” in the title), with mysterious parents who are either evil or terribly important or both, on a quest to save children from being permanently separated from their animal familiars, which in this world are called daemons. It’s all quite fantastic stuff. Two sequels followed with new adventures and new strange worlds and angels and witches and character arcs gone haywire. Fun reading for young and old alike.

But you know all this already, of course. And if you don’t, I suggest reading The Golden Compass before tackling Pullman’s latest.

Lyra is at the center of La Belle Sauvage as well. Though she’s just a little baby, she has a mysterious pull on all sorts of characters, including an 11-year-old boy named Malcolm Polstead, who finds the infant, temporarily being housed by a cloister of nuns, to be just the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen. So we know right away that the target demographic for this book isn’t your standard 8-12 middle grade reader.

While the pace eventually picks up in the second half of the 400+ page novel, much of the first part consists of Malcolm helping the nuns at the cloister, thinking about who Lyra is, planning to fix up his boat (La Belle Sauvage, same as the book’s title), and tending to his job as a helper at his parents’ pub near the river Thames. Malcolm is one of those characters with so few character flaws that he seems even unlikelier than the assortment of daemons that populate the story. Actually, in real life it’s not unusual to come across a child devoted to helping others and doting on a baby, but in the world of fiction he’s a bit of an anomaly.

Pullman takes his sweet time showing how wonderful Malcolm is, and establishing his emotional ties to the river. He slowly adds elements of tension: a stranger with a vicious daemon, a repressive religious organization that takes over his school and turns kids into snitches, a number of messed-up adults who are apparently also interested in Lyra, and a scholar who turns Malcolm into a spy.

At this point, fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

But all these dangerous elements take a back seat to the real challenge facing Malcolm, and indeed all folk in alt-Oxford and alt-London: a massive, supernatural flood of Biblical proportions. Malcolm and a fellow pub employee, 16-year-old Alice, escape with baby Lyra on La Belle Sauvage and fight not just for their lives on the raging flood, but also how to keep the baby happy—I kid you not. Finding fresh nappies*, baby formula, and a fire to heat the formula to the right temperature become just as important as securing food and a safe place to hide from the aforementioned maniacal evil person, who also wants Lyra (natch) and has a vicious hyena with a damaged leg for a daemon. As we eventually find out, he is also in possession of the only alethiometer known to be missing in this alt-world, which Malcolm eventually takes from him. (I assume the importance of this will be revealed in the next book in the series.)

The flood is a mind-boggler, launching Malcolm and Alice on a journey into strangeness that reminds me a bit of the Odyssey: they meet (and barely escape from) a witch with magical breasts with which to feed Lyra; find temporary shelter in a place that appears to be inhabited by people who can be seen but can’t see them; and finally get help from a friendly Thames river giant to escape from the faery world that has them trapped.

In between the nappies and baby feeding and barely staying alive (experiences that all new parents experience, no doubt), they defeat the evil person, but it’s not all buttercups and daisies. At the very end they barely escape with their lives when attacked by a ship from the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the real force of evil, who have been tracking them all this time. This tale doesn’t have much of a denouement at all: their rescuer, Lord Asriel, plucks them out of the flood waters just as La Belle Sauvage crumbles like a soggy box of matchsticks. But Asriel has places to go and things to do—no time for nappies, he—so he basically drops all three kids off at one of Oxford’s colleges and, well, that’s all folks.

There you have it. Can’t hardly call it a book for kids, especially when Malcolm at one point discovers he has the hots for the older Alice. Besides, Pullman is a very involved narrator who jumps around a lot and tells the story his own damn way. Kind of like your favorite uncle who’d come over for dinner, and everyone is waiting for him to tell a humdinger of tale, but he doesn’t want to tell it over dinner, and then he has to have his drinky-poo, and then he settles into your father’s favorite easy chair, and props his feet up, and scratches the dog behind the ears, and then asks to have his drinky-poo refreshed, and then has to use the water closet, and then finally he settles back in the chair and the dog circles around three times widdershins on the floor at his feet and he finally gets into the real story.

Or something like that.

* “nappies” is Brit for diapers, not things with which to wipe one’s mouth.

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I’ll say one thing for Catherynne M. Valente, author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making (Square Fish, 2011): given a choice of paths, she will always take the non-sequitur. Thus her spirited, often charming, and thoroughly whimsical fantasy, about a girl named September (but looks suspiciously like Carroll’s Alice) who gets transported to Fairyland by a Green Wind riding a Leopard, is that and a thousand threads more. About halfway through the book I decided to stop trying to keep track of each character and fairy object and what they might portend for her, and let the picaresque play out while I sampled Valente’s sometimes overly wrought, often tongue-in-cheek, exasperatingly yet delightfully nonsensical style that could only exist in an adult who has permanently mind-melded with her bookish inner child.

Speaking of books, I found this one in the Young Teen section of my local library, but that’s a wildly off-target notion. The language in this book is Not Teen Language, at least as conceived by the Industry (cough cough). Why, it has an adult narrator, and it’s not even first person present tense! It uses words like “velocipedes” and “gaol”—now that’s so British it’s not even funny! Okay for young adults, but then the main character hasn’t cracked 13 yet, so what’s with that? Didn’t Valente ever hear about the “MC should be at least two years older” rule for young readers?

Ah, but this book is a different kettle of spriggans. It’s too playfully fey for most Potter readers, but those fantasy consumers—mostly girls, I expect—who take delight in Valente’s hilarious mockup of Victorian fairy stories will be well acquainted with this sort of thing. You know, Capitalizing every Noun as though they were German. Anthropomorphizing EVERYthing, whether a key or a lamp. Having a conversation with Death, who turns out to be quite small and dear, really. And so on. If it’s your cup of tea, stay for the crumpets and discuss amongst your friends. One of my favorite passages for the tea set:

She [September] certainly did not see Death stand on her tiptoes and blow a kiss after her, a kiss that rushed through all the frosted leaves of the autumnal forest but could not quite catch a child running as fast as she could. As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.

After much twisting and turning, Valente does pull off a bit of a miracle, rescuing the story from a mid-story sag (I confess I put it down for several weeks, though that may have been because I, like so many unfortunates in the New World, got caught up following the events of an election Fairy Tale far darker than this book) by putting September through beautiful transformations and dangers that had me spellbound, at least for a while. Here’s from her journey aboard her makeshift raft on the Perverse and Perilous Sea:

September could see it. She did not know what she saw. That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator. She knew only that a red light glowed and went dark, glowed and went dark. In the shrieking whirl of the storms, she clung to her copper wrench and steered toward the light. Rain slashed at her face. Her skin had long ago gone numb and half blue. Everything ached from wrestling the raft to stay on course. Gleam bobbed and floated up ahead, valiantly trying to show the way, but the storm air was so awfully dark and thick. Lightning turned the world white—when she could see again, September looked up and glimpsed huge holes tearing open in her orange dress. A whip of wind lashed out and finished the job: the dress ripped along the sleeves and shot off into the dark. The storm ate up September’s cry of despair, delighted at its mischief, as all storms are.

So the narrator, in spite of her overly chatty excursions and silly observations, finally gets down to business. The end is most satisfying, with a major character twist that I shan’t tell you because that would be ever so dastardly of me to present such a spoiler to those who haven’t read the book but are now inclined to do so because of this review. (Don’t forget, this is but the first in an entire series—a series, mind you!—of Fairyland adventures by Ms. Valente).

But what I take mostly take away from this amusing story is its wry humor. It’s quirky, tableau-like presentation reminds me somewhat of the movie Moonrise Kingdom—or even The Big Lebowski—in a pseudo-Victorian environment, of course. It’s all cardboard cutouts and snuggly dreams and funny diversions, but in the end it has heart, and that’s what really matters.

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