I've just finished La Belle Sauvage and I'm exhausted - the suspense, the strain of 'hanging on' with our heroes 'til the end, the emotion of it ... It was almost all too much, but the book is terrific.
I shall be sparing with the details so as not to spoil anything, but as you may well know by now, it is set around 10 years before His Dark Materials when Lyra is a baby. As her role in the new book, though crucial, is thus limited, the principal character this time is a young boy called Malcolm Polstead. If you've read Lyra's Oxford you'll have met the older Malcolm, but in this book he's "a bright boy with a canoe" who lives on the Thames at Godstow where his parents run The Trout Inn*. Malcolm's a steady lad with a sharp brain; quick to pick things up, helpful and willing, shrewd for his age. He's knacky and workmanlike, and tends more to the quietly plodding than the flashy, characteristics which stand both him and the plot in which he features in good stead.
Across the river from the pub stands the priory whose nuns know Malcolm well. He pops over to do odd jobs for them, helps in the kitchen, and is thus privy to their news. When an infant is suddenly put in their care, Malcolm gives a hand and finds himself captivated by the child. His part in her immediate future will be central to her fate.
Suffice to say that an adventure begins, and its tightly linked episodes follow one another like beads on a string until on the final page the cord is cut, and ...
What more can I say? It's supremely inventive, of course, for Philip Pullman is a master storyteller, and the rhythm of his writing is absolutely sure, from sentence level up. He gives every phrase, paragraph, and scene such a clear beat that when he does draw a chapter to its close it requires a moment's pause for the necessary step-change from the reader, almost like the break between movements of a symphony, say. The pulse of the book will quicken or slow, and we must adjust along with it, but look out for the allegro con fuoco of the final pages, and the ending itself which couldn't be more perfect.
And now we have to wait for volume two.
*Yes, there's a real one.