11-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his daemon, 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.

It’s been a very long time since I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy so, in anticipation of receiving this book for Christmas, I re-read the original trilogy. Although these books had their flaws, I was surprised, on coming back to them as an adult, by the huge and often difficult themes Pullman explores. So I was excited to move on to La Belle Sauvage (described by Pullman as an equal rather than a prequel or sequel) to see whether Pullman returns to these themes.

What La Belle Sauvage is missing compared to the original trilogy is a strong story. While His Dark Materials is full of adventure and magic and awe-inspiring storylines, La Belle Sauvage follows Malcolm in his boat as he drifts from one weird scene to another; it doesn’t make for a coherent plot. Maybe it’s unfair to compare La Belle Sauvage to its predecessors, but this book just isn’t strong enough to stand on its own two feet.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. I enjoyed spending time with main character Malcolm, who is vulnerable but fiercely protective, and there were some villains whose frightening presence added necessary tension to an otherwise bland plot. I also loved the overall concept of Malcolm traversing a flooded, otherworldly Britain in his little canoe. There is some background given to the rise of the terrifying religious organisation, the Magisterium, and this was one of the most fascinating parts of the entire book and perhaps the only time when it came close to the complexity of the original trilogy.

Probably what exasperated me the most was Pullman’s writing style. Two characters will be having a conversation, and then another character will walk in and the first two characters will repeat the conversation for the benefit of the third. This happened over and over again and, in a book that’s 560 pages long, I was becoming more and more impatient to reach scenes where things actually happened.

We also don’t have a strong character to live up to the example set by Lyra in His Dark Materials. Alice is our main female character, a 16-year-old girl who works at the pub with Malcolm and joins him on his adventure. But she has so little personality and is given so little to do (aside from changing baby Lyra’s nappies) that I’m having trouble remembering her at all. She is lumped with a ‘typical female role’, that of taking care of the baby, while Malcolm is her protector. She is there only so that Malcolm might save her.

There have been plenty of fantastic reviews of this book and it was named Waterstones’ book of the year, but for me it failed to live up to expectations. The next two volumes are said to be set after the events of His Dark Materials, so perhaps Pullman will be able to create a more convincing sequel to make up for this watered-down prequel.