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The Book of Dust
This isn’t necessarily a big book in Printz speculation terms, but it’s a big book in the kidlit field; lots of excited librarians, lots of buzzing adults, lots of stars, lots of sales. Which means it’s the kind of book the RealCommittee is likely to look at, and it’s also the kind of book that we all wanted to read, so it was a solid candidate for a round-table review.
But then Joy decided to be a fan and not read this for critique purposes (and really, do you blame her? Sometimes it’s so nice not to worry about what you’ll say about a book). Karyn and Sarah, on the other hand, decided to use the critique to work through our conflicting feelings, so this is only a two-person discussion — but we’re hoping it will become a more-person discussion in the comments. We know some of you will strongly disagree with what we have to say.
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman
Knopf, October 2017
Reviewed from final copies
Karyn: Guys! Guys, I think maybe I didn’t actually like this very much. Except that sometimes I did? Oh, I have so many FEEELINGS.
Sarah: FEEELINGS. So many. (I feel the same, except that I did actually like this very much. Except that sometimes I didn’t? Like, when I dig into it I get mad? So the same but the opposite? I think? OR MAYBE THE SAME, I AM ALL MIXED UP RN.)
Karyn: To contextualize: I am not a huge His Dark Materials fan. I read the trilogy, but it was a series of diminishing returns for me. I legit loved the first, liked the second, and actually actively disliked a lot of The Amber Spyglass. I never even saw the movie, because it came out right when I had a newborn keeping me under house arrest, and then I never did get around to it, which says something about my motivation in this age of easily streamed content. So, I was super excited about The Book of Dust because I loved the world, especially the Oxford we see at the very start of The Golden Compass, and I do genuinely like Pullman as an author (I’ve read most of his non-His Dark Materials body of work). I was hoping for the kind of prequel where the references Easter eggs, fun but non-essential — where knowledge of the later series might enhance the meaning of a scene, or make a seemingly minor interaction with a 2-bit character laden with excitement, because you know that character from the later books, but for the ignorant reader new to the world it all works regardless. (Elizabeth Wein is really really good at this, BTW.) But this was more direct backstory — and without knowing who Asriel and Coulter and Lyra are I’m not sure it’s a book that actually holds together.
Sarah: I, too, wondered how this book would read to someone who hasn’t read any of the earlier books. I actually suspect it would feel more interesting and less unnecessary.
Karyn: Also this whole book is about saving this one baby who ONLY MATTERS BECAUSE OF THE LATER BOOKS.
Plus we know she’s going to be fine and end up in Oxford, so there’s no actual, you know, tension.
Sarah: Hmmm. I enjoyed saving the baby and didn’t need her to matter more than vague prophecies because babies are delicious, especially ones where I only have to read about dirty nappies and not change them. ANYWAY. I liked that Malcolm was so determined to help and so fiercely in love with Lyra. What a refreshing thing, to spend time with a dude who wants to take care and feels tenderly. I liked that a lot. Malcolm’s care, his kindness, his “intense romanticism” were a big part of what worked for me.
Where I keep getting hung up is Alice, actually. And I am TRYING not to Hulk out, maybe you can talk me down? Or maybe you have your own take on her?
Karyn: Alice? I liked Alice, she’s crabby and real and raw and turns out to be 100% awesome and strong. Oh! Is it the gendering? Alice knows how to change diapers. And also the stuff about not being very pretty and being kind of cranky because of it?
Sarah: Well, the diaper-based gendering was not super pleasing, but — no. I liked all that I knew of her. It’s just that, all we get of Alice is external, outside of her. We get so close to Malcolm, and he’s the main character, so that’s good…but because Alice takes on such an important role for the second half of the book, we should have gotten a better sense of her, internally. We get more interiority from Hannah, from Asriel, maybe even from Coram and Nugent. FREAKING NUGENT (you can imagine my frenzied muppet arm waving here, I am sure). And Alice is the CO-SAVIOR of Lyra in the second half, and we only ever look at her from Malcolm’s POV.
All of which I could be fine with, especially if I didn’t have to think too hard about it…but then she is sexually assaulted and it is MALCOLM’S problem. Not hers. HE learns and grows from it. AND SAVES HER. UGH.
And — possibly what makes me the angriest — all of this was basically established and known and done when Malcolm saw Bonneville with Sister Katarina. Why the repetition? Why this again? This authorial decision — essentially made twice — is really sticking in my craw.
Karyn: I hadn’t considered the message of those things COMBINED. Alice only from Malcolm’s POV made sense to me; anyone we see a closer POV from, it’s because we need to see something Malcolm can’t possibly know. Since Alice is with Malcolm for all the things we need to see, we see if from his eyes. I was fine with that, although she was a strong enough character that I would have liked more of her — but it made sense, within the construction of the novel. And I thought the assault piece — and Bonneville as a sexual predator in general — was all unnecessary and also weird in what seems to really be a book about a child and presumably for children. (Or, really: it’s either a book that stands alone and is thus for children, or it’s a book purely for fans, and thus aimed at an older audience, but actually in neither case is Bonneville as sexual predator really needed.) So I didn’t like that — but then, there’s a lot I didn’t like, the more I think about this. Now that you’ve put those two pieces together though, I like it even less, and I wonder about authorial intent; was this intentional? That raises even more questions (and with Pullman, intent/purpose is sometimes paramount).
Sarah: Yes. Bonneville as a sexual predator was what set me off on this whole tangent — you should see my notes — and he could have been a memorable, powerful villain without raping people. He had the menace; he had the weird, smooth charm; he had the vicious daemon; all the pieces were there. That scene on the path outside the priory? I had chills. And shivers. This is clearly a dangerous dude. And then that charming smile at the bar? Ahhhhhhhh! And then these assaults A, happen, and B, are clumsily presented in the narrative. I have EVEN MORE thoughts on this; see: later this conversation.
HOWEVER. There were elements that I liked — maybe even loved. Talk about Easter eggs, I liked the bits of mythology that found their way into the text. They fit nicely (to me) with the epically biblical-ness of the flood — everything wild and magic and stirred up and outside of time. Talk about la belle sauvage! <3
Karyn: I do like the world a lot, so anything world-buildy I enjoyed, and I think this is where the gorgeous descriptive writing shines — this isn’t some hack author, this is an accomplished wordsmith who, from a sentence-writing level, is almost always perfectly on point, who has created a vibrant alternate reality (although more of the heavy lifting happened in the original trilogy). And I like Malcolm, even if he’s a little too good, I would have been okay with more about him as a character, as we see him in the first part, as opposed to him as vehicle (literally!) for someone else’s story.
Sarah: Yes, I liked the slow first half of the book better than the second half. The unhurried pace there was really great — the stuff at school, life at the Trout, the danger ebbing and flowing with Malcolm popping up everywhere, and all the gossip all around? So good, and such great background tension. But I also am pretty sure that I’d like to run an inn and eat stew a lot of the time so I could be biased.
Karyn: Absolutely, the first half was definitely better. I was invested in the nuns and Hannah and this sweet kid who becomes a spy and entangled in huge things, and Lyra is a background character who serves to push Malcolm’s story at that point, and that made it a book about its own story, not a book that exists only to set up the already existing trilogy. That second half gets really repetitive, and yes, it’s a biblical flood, but I don’t get why, nor was it that compelling all of the time, although there’s a lot of strong writing and set pieces that work really well. I think this is where the knowing it was all going to be ok really damages the pacing of the writing, because the action has no teeth, the stakes aren’t real enough.
Sarah: Were the grown ups necessary to our understanding of the plot? We spent — maybe not a great deal of time with Nugent and Papadimitriou, and of course Asriel and Relf, but…a significant amount. Could we have gotten that information eventually and fine enough from Malcolm and Alice? I felt like there was a LARGE number of recounting conversations, and yet other times I felt like people knew things that they couldn’t’ve. But I also probably lost track.
Karyn: I ended up on various fansites trying to remember things I had forgotten (like how bad was Asriel, really), which means the book itself didn’t satisfy me in terms of understanding who the adults were or how they mattered. All of the grown-ups were there either because they matter in the original trilogy (which I didn’t remember, so I didn’t care as a reader) or as expository devices and I agree, there was probably a better way for the exposition.
Sarah: I have feeelings about Asriel (and Nugent MY GOD), if we want to get into them, and ultimately they’re related to all my frenzied notes about Bonneville.
First, the references to paedophilia, and the grown ups’ overall willingness to either harness it (gah) or overlook it are just too much for me right now in this #metoo moment. Just too much. And it gave the whole book a strange “sex is gross” vibe that I don’t at all think was on purpose or is necessarily representative of what Pullman might think.
(I understand that Malcolm’s burgeoning feelings for Alice work in counterpoint to this. HOWEVER. Even those innocent moments push Alice away from the center of the novel and I have already said my piece on not allowing Alice her own perspective.)
(Karyn: I don’t even know if that’s true, anyway, that it’s a counterpoint. I get that 11-y-o boys have burgeoning sexual feelings, but it just served to put more sex in the book and having it there in conjunction with references to assault and pedophilia just served to make even what should have been innocent feel a little icky. And having the feelings aimed at Alice felt weird, maybe because of the age difference or maybe because of her being his first real friend, or maybe because of Bonneville and the way it makes Malcolm and Bonneville paralleled.)
Sarah: Heh, I thought of them as a counterpoint being a ‘benefit of the doubt’ kind of thing — because then at least the intention is not “all sex is gross” …but of course I can’t actually speak for Pullman’s intentions.
Anyway, so. Pullman is working to illustrate that adulthood (and the world we live in) is complicated and gray and sometimes the people working for the greater good have to make awful choices and be ruthless in order to also be heroic. AND it’s all tied into ideas about maturity and compromise. And I’d argue it’s also part of his thing that it’s the kids who will rush in and put it all on the line and be absolute in their love and their generosity.
But is that all really true? Like, really? It’s only kids who put it all on the line and make their vulnerability into a strength? I just don’t see that in the world around me. I don’t. I didn’t even see that in the pages of La Belle Sauvage, though it’s hard to tell that with the way the focus keeps getting thrown back to these boringly flawed adults.
(Which is where this connects back to Bonneville. Both of his assaults [and I would argue he was assaulting Sister Katarina, despite her nominal consent] are about depicting Bonneville [as evil] or Malcolm [as horrified and growing up and realizing the cruelty of the world]. And not about either of the characters who are actually assaulted.)
And all of that is to say, I am tired unto the tiredeth degree of dudes sitting around in their drawing rooms making their hard choices while only protecting their own. Or wreaking havoc on the world while staying insulated from their choices. (FREAKING NUGENT.) Or, let’s be consistent, waltzing with their baby daughter in a moonlit garden after heroically heroic-ing in some far-off place and regaining a huge fortune and also dueling or whatever. UGH. These dudes are not that cool, definitely not that interesting, and their page time came at the expense of more interesting, cooler, and actually heroic characters. ALICE FOREVER. Or, jeez, what about Sister Benedicta? MORE PAGE TIME FOR THE LADIES PLZ — my new bumper sticker.
Karyn: I think you just nailed my issue with this book (and Amber Spyglass, tbh). Either it’s a book unto itself, in which case all these MESSAGES are heavy handed intrusions, or it’s a MESSAGE (that I am not even sure I agree with, and sometimes I am not even sure what it is, except that it’s definitely purposeful in a not-subtle way), in which case why am I reading it in novel form?
Sarah: I am chewing on this question. In defense of The Book of Dust, I have to say, it’s more subtle than The Amber Spyglass, where there’s at least one very explicit rant about religion and power and corruption. (Not that this comparison actually has any purpose in a Printz discussion, but here is where we’ve found ourselves.)
Finally, I am not so sure how I feel about that ending. I mean, it took care of the big questions, but despite my love for inns and stews, it seems anticlimactic for Malcolm and Alice to just head on back. How even are they getting back to the Trout so that they’re not attracting attention from religious authorities and traveling with these Oakley Street regulars? (God, these grown ups are the WORST.)
And — not really our purview here, but — what is left to tell? Don’t get me wrong, I’ll read the next one, but what is left, where is this going?
Karyn: 20 years into the future, I believe. Fansites tell me Malcolm at least exists in the original trilogy, he’s a University student, so maybe we’ll see him again in the second volume, but we’ll have missed all the interesting parts of him growing up. Alice seems to vanish from the record at least if you look at the original trilogy, which gets back to the issues you raised before; she really is just there to support the hero and to change nappies and that is not good character development, as well as just ugh.
I’ll read it too, because of course I will, I still persist in loving the world. And I enjoyed this well enough along the way, even if not so much the more I think on it. It’s unevenly paced, overly reliant on external knowledge of a pre-existing series of books, lacks character development, uses violence against women to grow male characters, and is all about a character who in the context of this book shouldn’t be that important (yes, she matters to Malcolm because he loves her, but that’s so told to us that it feels tacked on as a way to propel Lyra’s story.) I would have so much preferred the book I thought we were getting until the flood happened, about a smart, lonely boy who finds himself embroiled in bigger things, which just so happen to be related to big things that will happen in 10 years but it’s ok if you don’t know that. Not a smart, lonely boy whose entire existence in the text is about saving the protagonist of the next book.
Conclusion: It just isn’t that great of a book, even if it’s great for fans, which means (to be vaguely on task) we’re giving this a big fat no for Printz potential.
Filed under: Books to look for
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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