Book Review: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, volume 1)

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .

Welcome back to the wonderful world first introduced in the amazing trilogy, His Dark Materials (which I recently wrote about, here). After 17 long years, Philip Pullman takes us back to the alternate reality of an Oxford, England in which the church is in control, people are accompanied by animal-shaped daemons who are really a part of them, like a visible soul that they can converse with, witches are real, and a strange particle known as Dust has everyone in a tizzy.

La Belle Sauvage, the first book in Pullman’s new trilogy (The Book of Dust), is a prequel to the events of The Golden Compass and the rest. Anyone who’s read His Dark Materials knows (and loves) Lyra, the preteen heroine who’s brave and clever and ultimately responsible for saving the world.

In La Belle Sauvage, Lyra is a baby — a helpless character, but still very much at the center of the action. The main character here is a boy named Malcolm, an innkeeper’s son with a heart of gold. Malcolm is a smart, inquisitive boy with the mind of a potential scholar, even though he’s probably destined to run the inn when he’s grown. Malcolm works hard at the inn, serving customers and helping his parents, and in his spare time also does whatever odd jobs are needed by the nuns of the Godstow Priory across the river. And when Malcolm has any time left over, he takes his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, out on the rivers and canals to explore and see all there is to see.

When the nuns take in baby Lyra and offer her sanctuary, Malcolm becomes her instant protector, madly in love with the adorable baby and her equally adorable baby daemon. But the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) is out to get Lyra, along with a deranged former scholar with a criminal past, and Malcolm comes to believe that only he can keep her safe and get her to her father, Lord Asriel, for protection. When a huge storm unleashes massive flooding, Malcolm and Alice, a girl who works at the inn as well, rescue Lyra from the waters engulfing the priory and set off in the canoe, with all sorts of dangerous foes determined to catch them and take Lyra away, no matter what it takes.

Oh my, is this a good book! The adventure is top-notch. We have spies galore, and Malcolm first becomes involved when he inadvertently witnesses the capture of a member of the anti-Church spy ring by agents of the CCD. We also see the creeping terror as the Church’s iron-fisted rule takes over school and society, as school children are encouraged to join a religious league and inform on their parents, friends, neighbors, and teachers — anyone who steps away from the approved teachings of the Church or dares to break the increasingly harsh rules imposed by the CCD.

Malcolm is a terrific main character. He’s smart and daring, always looking to learn, but loyal to his parents and the nuns, and not afraid of working hard. He’s kind and patient, but ready to step up and be fierce when needed. He and Alice start off as enemies, but as they flee with Lyra, they become allies and then true friends.

Lyra, of course, is adorable. She doesn’t do much, but all the action swirls around her. It’s fascinating to see an infant in this world — something we never see in the original trilogy. What we learn in The Book of Dust is that babies have baby daemons, who are also rather helpless and cute and dependent on others for care. Lyra’s daemon Pan takes the form of various small animals — among them kittens and chicks — and curls up to nap with Lyra, each giving comfort to the other. Lyra and Pan babble together in their own language, and somehow it’s just amazing to see how Pullman plays out the concept of daemons in the context of early childhood development.

I wondered how Pantalaimon got his name — I’d assumed while reading The Golden Compass that the person must name his or her daemon, but in La Belle Sauvage, one of the nuns tells Malcolm what Lyra’s daemon’s name is. So is the daemon named by the parent at the same time as the child? I guess it must be so, since the daemon has a name before the child can talk, but it struck me as surprising — I kind of expected the naming of the daemons to have something to do with the person’s inner truth, or some such thing, rather than to be imposed from an external source. This is something I’d definitely like to know more about!

There are some cool connections to the world of His Dark Materials. I thought Malcolm’s name was familiar… and with good reason. In the novella Lyra’s Oxford, which takes place a couple of years after The Amber Spyglass, Lyra encounters a Professor Polstead, who is described as “stout, ginger-haired, affable; more inclined to be friendly to Lyra than she was to return the feeling.” It’s Malcolm! I’m so happy to know that he’s still a part of Lyra’s life later on, even though she doesn’t know his significance or how he saved her life. I hope we’ll learn more in later books in The Book of Dust. Other familiar faces are (of course) Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s parents, as well as the gyptian Farder Coram and the scholar Hannah Relf.

I absolutely loved the world-building in La Belle Sauvage. Even though this world is familiar from the earlier trilogy, we get to see aspects of the society that are new, through new and different sets of eyes. As I mentioned, the characters are phenomenal, especially Malcolm, but even the more minor characters are distinctive and memorable.

The action is thrilling, especially once the flood comes and Malcolm and Alice begin their adventure on the river. The two show amazing courage and stamina, sacrificing everything for the sake of little Lyra. Their experiences are often truly terrifying, but their essential goodness and bravery keeps them going even when it seems like they’ll never reach safety.

The author never talks down to his audience, and as in the original trilogy, brain power is required. There’s talk of physics and theology and particles and matter, and scholars are among the most esteemed characters. Philip Pullman’s characters value intelligence and curiosity, and reading his books is anything but a mindless pursuit. The ideas and concepts here demand that the reader put some effort in — all well worth it.

Ah, such a good read! Really, what more can I say? I cannot wait to continue the trilogy, and will be eagerly stalking The Book of Dust‘s Goodreads page for the first hint of a publication date for the second book (which, according to Goodreads, will be called The Secret Commonwealth).

If you read His Dark Materials, you simply must read La Belle Sauvage. And it probably goes without saying, but for anyone who hasn’t read the first trilogy, go do it now! Get thee to a bookstore or library and grab a copy of The Golden Compass! It’ll rock your world.

One final note: The book is marketed as young adult fantasy and is published by the children’s division of the publisher, but as with His Dark Materials, I have a hard time defining this book by its intended audience. It’s a great book, period. For anyone. And for anyone who cares about such things, I’d say the tone here is skewed slightly older, as there are hints of more adult content in the context of the actions of a terrible villain, and there’s even an f-bomb, which I don’t believe occurs at all in His Dark Materials. Regardless, La Belle Sauvage is beautifully written and is another excellent chapter in an exciting series of fantasy novels — and should be read by adults and smart kids of all ages!

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The details:

Title: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, volume 1)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 19, 2017
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Fantasy/young adult
Source: Purchased

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Series wrap-up: The Magicians

The MagiciansMAgician King 2Magician's Land

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman:

The Magicians – 2009

The Magician King – 2011

The Magician’s Land – 2014

When The Magicians was first released in 2009, the shorthand buzz about the book was that it was “Harry Potter for grown-ups”. And this is kinda, sorta true, in some ways. In The Magicians, main character Quentin Coldwater heads off for a college interview and instead, suddenly finds himself taking the entrance exam at Brakebills University, a school of magic. Because magic is real, and Quentin is a magician. What follows is Quentin’s immersion in his magical education… so kind of Hogwarts-y — except in the world of Brakebills, sex and drugs and plenty of angst feature into the story too. For every moment of starry-eyed wonder at the magical world he finds himself in, Quentin also experiences neuroses and self-doubt and pain and ennui.

I love this Three-Panel Book Review by Lisa Brown, which really says it all:

magicians-3-panel

At the time that The Magicians was published, it was intended to be a stand-alone… but a few years later, author Lev Grossman continued the tale. Books two and three of the series, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land, are a lot less Harry and a lot more Narnia. The action is all post-college, and the tone is adult. Yes, there are still moments of magic and wonder, but Quentin lives in a dark world in which there is struggle, disappointment, loss, and pain.

And quests. Did I mention quests? In the 2nd and 3rd books, Quentin and his friends find themselves in various worlds, ours and others, in which everything is on the line and apocalypse looms. But of course, there are also amazing adventures, such as a sea voyage to the end of the world (very Prince Caspian, at least in the broad strokes of plot outline) and a journey to an upside down world underneath the one on the surface.

The supporting characters are, for the most part, simply marvelous. I especially love Elliot, who we first meet at Brakebills and who goes in some very unexpected directions. The character of Julia, Quentin’s childhood friend who does not get into Brakebills, but instead finds her own path to magic, is dark and disturbing, and her transformation over the course of the trilogy is perhaps the most startling and extreme.

I’m leaving out most of the essential plot points about these books, because I think this is a series best read unspoiled. But read it, you should. It’s a marvelous journey from childhood to adulthood, with a rich fantasy world that’s brilliantly developed and articulated. The characters are terrific, and the writing is funny, arch, and moving.

It’s also quite deliberately full of nods and winks to its inspirations. Quentin and friends know the worlds of Narnia and Harry Potter, and the text is full of little references. A favorite moment for me, late in the trilogy, comes when Quentin is entering a potentially dangerous situation, and says to his companion:

Wands out, Harry.

Sigh. Little things like that always make me happy. (PS – it’s worth noting that this is completely ironic, as wands do not actually factor into the magical stylings in The Magicians. There’s also no one named Harry, in case you wondered.)

You may be aware that The Magicians has been adapted for TV. The first season of The Magicians aired on the Syfy channel this past spring, and I thought it was pretty great. In fact, watching the TV show is what spurred me to re-read book 1 and then finally finish the trilogy. Here’s the trailer:

The show definitely differs in some pretty significant ways from the books, and incorporates later elements from the book trilogy into the first season, but much of the flavor comes through. I’ll be interested in seeing how they keep it going in the 2nd season, and beyond (assuming there’s a beyond).

Wrapping it all up…

I’m so glad I returned to the world of The Magicians. When the 2nd book came out several years ago, it had already been a while for me since I’d read the first, and I just couldn’t generate the interest at the time to dive back into the story. I’m glad that I took the time now to go back to the beginning and read the trilogy all the way through from start to finish.

In my opinion, this is a trilogy that’s worth reading as a whole, either one after another or with only short breaks in between. Keeping the continuity going is important, both in terms of the the sheer amount of detail that carries over from book to book, as well as for the sake of enjoying the building mood and character developments over the length of the trilogy.

But whichever way you choose to read The Magicians books — just read them. I highly recommend this trilogy for anyone who grew up on children’s fantasy books… and secretly hoped that their worlds were real.

Thursday Quotables: The Magician’s Land

quotation-marks4

Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

Magician's Land

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
(published 2014)

My progress is slower than I’d really like (crazy week), but I’m finally approaching the end of the Magicians trilogy! I’ve really enjoyed these books… but it’s hard to find meaningful passages that work for Thursday Quotables and which make any sense at all out of context.

I’ll give it a try anyway. Ever wonder what it would be like to experience the world as a blue whale? Main character Quentin gets the chance to find out:

He noticed everything but was concerned with nothing. Drake Passage had the worst weather in the world, literally, but all that meant was that when he surfaced for a breath, once every fifteen minutes or so, the waves broke a little harder against his wide, slick back. He and Plum were great blue gods, flying wingtip to wingtip, and everything around them paid homage to them. Fish, jellyfish, shrimp, sharks; once he spotted a great white, swaggering along by itself through the depths with its permanent shit-eating grin. It had so many teeth it looked like it had braces. Nature’s perfect killing machine! Go on with your bad self. No, really. It’s cute.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Thursday Quotables: The Magician King

quotation-marks4

Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

MAgician King 2

The Magician King by Lev Grossman
(published 2011)

I just finished this terrific book, book #2 in The Magicians series. It’s all wonderful, but it’s hard to pick out just one passage for Thursday Quotables!

More or less at random, here’s a little piece of a speech by a favorite character:

“I don’t mind telling you that I found the whole business more than a little provoking. I was being called, you understand, and I most definitely did not want to come. I understand the appeal this sort of thing has for you, quests and King Arthur and all that. But that’s you. No offense, but it always seemed a bit like boy stuff to me. Sweaty and strenuous and just not very elegant, if you  see what I mean. I didn’t need to be called to feel special, I felt special enough already. I’m clever, rich, and good-looking. I was perfectly happy where I was, deliquescing, atom by atom , amid a riot of luxury.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

The Trouble with Trilogies

I have a problem with trilogies. But not just trilogies.

Sequels, series, you name it. Anything that’s to be continued is just trouble for me right now.

Why?

Because after a certain point, I just don’t care. If I have to wait a year to find out what happens next, most of the time, I simply won’t still be interested enough to bother with it.

Why are there so many trilogies in the YA fiction world now? Why is it practically the norm to turn every potentially good story into a series? Whatever happened to a beginning, middle and end all in one book?

I loved The Diviners by Libba Bray. I preordered book 2, which was supposed to be out this summer. Lo and behold, the release has been delayed until 2015. Guess what? By the time Lair of Dreams comes out, I don’t know that I’ll feel like bothering any more. Sure, I loved the characters and the setting of the first book. The plot was different and interesting and made me want to know more. But I was also mostly satisfied with how it ended, and in fact my only quibble about the book was the fact that it was clearly building up to an ongoing story, even though the main plot of The Diviners did have a pretty great wrap-up.

Another example: I just DNF’d a book that concludes a YA trilogy that I’d enjoyed so far, by an author whose writing I admire very much. But yeah… I read the first two books, and I liked them a lot. But time has gone by, and I don’t feel a burning need to know more about the story, and when I read the first couple of chapters, I realized I’d be totally fine with not reading the book. Just. Didn’t. Care.

So what’s this mini-rant all about? I guess I’m just fed up with stories being stretched into three (or more) books when they could be told in one. The trilogy I just walked away from could have made one really good book, and I can think of a few others where the same would be true. Is it just publishers wanting to sell more books? Does a series have a glamor to it that a stand-alone doesn’t?

Look, I do read series. Take Outlander or A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance. These books are huge, and the worlds they contain are vast, and each book is an event. Or, for example, some of the great ongoing urban fantasy series, such as the Dresden Files books or the Mercy Thompson series. Each book in these is a new chapter, a new adventure, in a carefully created world that continues to grow and expand. I love all of the above — and will keep reading them until the authors are done, or until an asteroid wipes out life on Earth, or something equally cataclysmic occurs.

The problem with so many of the series out there, particularly (but not exclusively) in YA, is that a lot of them feel like filler. With many of the YA trilogies I’ve read over the years, the story is stretched and padded and chopped in order to make three books out of a story that, with some good editing and tightening up, could have been one great book. I’m tired of the “to be continued” ending that exists just to keep us coming back for more (or, to put it more cynically, exists just to keep us taking out our credit cards).

Not that my complaint is about the money, really: It’s about the storytelling. Tell me a great story, make me care, introduce me to amazing characters, and have a compelling story arc. With an ending.

Like I said, some series are great and deserve every page and every volume. But sadly, there are a lot that miss the mark by a long shot.

So, yeah, today I walked way from book 3 in a trilogy that I actually thought had a pretty good start.

If it’s been a year and I haven’t thought about the earlier books in all that time, even if I liked them when I read them, then chances are when the big finale finally rolls around, I won’t be around for it. Because I just won’t care any more.

Just something to think about.

Book Review: Ashen Winter

Book Review: Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin

Ashen Winter is the second book in Mike Mullin’s natural disaster trilogy, following the author’s powerful debut novel, Ashfall. SPOILER ALERT: This review will, by necessity, contain mild spoilers for book one. Stop here if you just don’t want to know!

In Ashfall, teen protagonist Alex is forced to grow up in a hurry when life as he knows it comes to an end following a massive supervolcano eruption which causes widespread environmental catastrophe. At the beginning of Ashen Winter, ten months have passed since the eruption. Alex and girlfriend Darla are living at his uncle’s farm in Illinois, struggling to survive the freezing temperatures brought on by the ash-induced climate change. Alex is determined to find his parents, who returned to Iowa to find Alex at the same time that Alex was fleeing Iowa to reunite with his family. Alex and Darla, bound by a soul-deep love, leave on their quest early in Ashen Winter, and immediately encounter one disastrous turn of events after another. The two escape death, barely and not without injury, time and time again, as they face physical danger, loss of food and supplies, freezing conditions, corrupt government contractors, and bands of cannibals who prey upon anyone they can capture.

Alex shoulders tremendous burdens and feels a crushing sense of guilt and responsibility as each carefully laid plan turns ruinous. Alex and Darla are separated early on, and Alex faces one obstacle after another as his quest to find his parents turns into a rescue mission: Find Darla before she is killed or brutalized by the rampaging gangs of armed thugs who prey upon the weak and alone. Alex is not without resources, however. In the first book, we saw Alex repeatedly struggle to do what he could to help others, even when doing so meant his own survival might be jeopardized. In Ashen Winter, we see a kind of pay-off for Alex’s earlier choices, as the people he’s helped or rescued along the way become valuable allies.

An ongoing motif throughout both books is the meaning of adulthood. By Ashen Winter, Alex is sixteen, and the adults he meets along the way continue to try to control him and make decisions in what they think is his best interest. Repeatedly, well-meaning adults discount his absolute commitment to Darla and try to dissuade him from his rescue mission. Alex, despite his age, must prove to himself and to those around him, over and over again, that he is strong, capable, and yes, in love — not a fleeting, teen romance, but a connection and a commitment that means that he must find Darla, no matter the danger or the very real possibility that she’s already dead. Alex’s opponents are not only the gangs and corrupt officials who threaten him, but also the adults he trusts and loves. All of them stand in his way; all of them underestimate him; to all of them, he has to stand up and proclaim that he is an adult to be reckoned with.

Ashen Winter is like paper crack. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger of sorts. Here’s a random sampling of a few last lines from various chapters:

“What really caught my attention was the machine pistol he had trained on Darla.”

“A line of men popped into view one by one, their heads and shoulders above the low log gate. Every one of them was pointing a rifle at us.”

“Then I heard an engine rumble behind us.”

“The bike fell sidways, trapping Darla’s leg and dragging her ina rush toward the deadly, roiling water at the base of the dam.”

“I slipped — and suddenly I was dangling, my feet clawing futilely at the air.”

“When the body quits shivering, it’s preparing to die.”

I could provide many more examples, but you get the idea. No wonder I’ve been bleary-eyed all week — with ending sentences like these, it was simply impossible to put this book down at the end of a chapter and call it a night.

In other reviews, I’ve referred to 2nd books in trilogies as middle children — not the first, leading the way, not the last, to be cherished and savored. The middle book has to keep the momentum going, provide a link between beginning and end, but not actually allow the story to move too close to a conclusion. When not done well, a reader is left feeling like he or she is treading water, waiting for the action to resume in the final book. I’m happy to report that Ashen Winter is a terrific example of a middle book that accomplishes its mission and then some. It not only moves the story forward and leaves the reader hungry for the final installment, but it contains a compelling plot, filled with twists and turns, memorable characters, action aplenty, and convincing character development. In other words, it’s a good book in its own right, which is really quite rare for a middle book.

Of course, it would be foolish to pick up Ashen Winter without having read the first book and expect to understand what’s going on. But if you want an action story with heart, pick up Ashfall and dive in. I dare you to stop after just one book.

Book Review: Because It Is My Blood

Book Review: Because It Is My Blood by Gabrielle Zevin

Because It Is My Blood, book 2 in the Birthright series which began in All These Things I’ve Done, continues the story of Anya Balanchine, 17-year-old heiress to the Balanchine Chocolate empire. Unfortunately for Anya, in New York in the year 2083, chocolate and caffeine are illegal under the laws of the Second Prohibition. As a result, the Balanchines are a notorious organized crime family, and as the daughter of the murdered head of the family business, Anya is a prime target for both internecine bloodshed and for the law enforcement agents eager to make a big splash in the press.

On top of all this, Anya must worry about protecting both her genius younger sister and her mentally-impaired older brother — not to mention the more typical teenage worries of boyfriends, best friends, and high school graduation. The fact that Anya is a convicted criminal who has served prison time complicates matters tremendously, and when she is re-jailed on trumped-up charges, an escape seems to be the only answer.

Because It Is My Blood is a serviceable second book, moving the plot along at a mostly fast pace, although several of Anya’s sojourns along the way seem to drag a bit. The heart of the story is somewhat lacking in this installment. All These Things I’ve Done was propelled forward not only by the crime family plotline but by a compelling “star-crossed lovers” romance between Anya and the son of the New York District Attorney. This romance still features in the second book, but doesn’t carry the sense of excitement and passion present in the first. In fact, that sums up the problem that I had with Because It Is My Blood. The book often reads as a recitation of facts and events — jailbreaks, deaths real and faked, meetings with lawyers, meetings with Balanchine family members and associates — but without a sense of burning passion driving the story forward.

This is not to say that Because It Is My Blood isn’t fun to read. I got a real kick out of the familiar New York landmarks reimagined in the setting of a deteriorating city with meager resources and ample crime. The popular nightclub Little Egypt is housed in what was once a museum (i.e., The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and a vacant mess of a property with weird lion statues out front (i.e., The New York Public Library) is described as a place where they used to keep paper books in the old days. Anya is amused by the old-fashioned slang of her grandmother (OMG, for example), and there’s a film festival showing ancient movies including one where a lady crosses a river on a horse (which I can only assume is a reference to Lord of the Rings). Little details like these make the story accessible and bring to life both the setting and the era in ways both entertaining and relatable.

By the end of Because It Is My Blood, the stage has been set for what I believe will be an exciting third installment in the trilogy. Anya has made key decisions and is about to take a bold new step that will impact all the people around her and will have dramatic impact on the family business as well as on the New York political world. The developments are quite promising, and the storyline is left hanging with a tremendous amount of potential for a satisfying conclusion to the series.

As a young adult trilogy, the Birthright series has a lot going for it: a smart, strong female protagonist, an unusual premise that breaks from the ubiquitous dystopian model saturating the YA market, and a clear-eyed look at a girl who has to balance love, family, honor, and her own sense of purpose. Because It Is My Blood is not a stand-along novel, and you wouldn’t want to jump into the series with it. But if this type of story appeals to you, I’d definitely recommend giving the series a try, starting with All These Things I’ve Done. The writing is fresh, funny, and appealing, the characters are not run-of-the-mill YA teens… and who can resist a book about chocolate?

Note: I have two other book 2s in the works this week, and may actually be back with a few astute observations when I’m done. Middle children never have it easy, do they?