I'll begin by saying that you don't have to have read the His Dark Materials trilogy to enjoy this novel. While it does give my spine a tingle to read about his characters in their younger versions, Pullman lets this series stand alone.
La Belle Sauvage is the name of Malcolm Polstead's boat. Malcolm is the 11-year-old son of the local innkeeper, and Alice is their 15-year-old servant. And it is through Malcolm that we meet the baby Lyra. Many characters from His Dark Materials make their way through the area, trying to find Lyra. It's unclear to Malcolm who wants to help her and who is there to make sure she never takes her first steps.
It's hard to pinpoint one thing that makes this first entry in The Book of Dust trilogy so outstanding. Pullman makes it look easy so I know it was hard. He tells the story as Malcolm experiences it without oversimplifying or patronizing Malcolm or the reader. As Malcolm and Alice go through trials together, their blossoming relationship is sweet without being cloying and has some of the elements you'd expect from an 11-year-old boy. While the first half sets the stage, the second half is all action and Pullman is as good at a heart-pounding sequence as he is about the thoughtful still moments.
A perfect balance of plot and character, La Belle Sauvage will carry you safely back, or for the first time, to Pullman's alternate dystopian/fantasy reality. Take an umbrella.