The Book of Dust, Book 1: La Belle Sauvage

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
The Book of Dust, Book 1: La Belle Sauvage Book Poster Image
Nail-biting start to trilogy in His Dark Materials world.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 7 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Like the trilogy His Dark Materials, this book will give readers an idea of what theologians and philosophers ponder. Strict religious law butts up against the exercise of democracy and freedom of thought and expression. Also included: English faerie and river god lore. A stanza from Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene concludes the book.

Positive Messages

The danger of religious intolerance and the determination to fight against it and for the principles of democracy and for freedom of thought and expression. Bravery, love, loyalty, and ingenuity win out over darkness, intolerance, and despair.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Malcolm is so many things: brave, responsible, tenacious, and clever, and he has a strong sense of right and wrong. When he's forced to take the top of a casket for firewood, he apologizes to the inhabitant and hides the skeleton's jewels underneath her to thwart grave robbers. Alice begins very guarded and slowly opens up to Malcolm. She's also very brave and takes the responsibility of caring for a baby very seriously, but often leaves the tougher decisions to Malcolm, who's 11, while Alice is 16.


A mentally unstable man determined to do harm to children is shot, stabbed, and beaten to death by those children to save their own lives. A man is found shot. A man beats his own daemon (companion animal that represents part of his spirit) and is said to have an unhealthy interest in young boys. A teen girl is held down by her arms with the threat of sexual violence. Kids are hit on the head and black out, shot at, and kidnapped. Many die in a catastrophic, many-day flood, including friends close to the main character whose building collapses on them. Bodies are seen floating in the water. A girl's rear is pinched as she works at a bar. Story of a boy sainted for turning in his family for not being Christian -- they are all executed. The story of a murderer dismembering children.


Boy witnesses part of a sexual encounter with heads visible and moaning. Talk of how babies are made. Some kissing and talk of kissing and crushes. Nonsexual nudity: a baby breastfeeds from someone who's not her mother.


A few instances of "s--t," one "f---ing," plus "bastards," "bloody hell," "damn," and "goddamn."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Many scenes where adult patrons drink and in academic circles where everyone is offered wine or hard liquor. Eleven-year-old Malcolm is tempted to take a sip of one fancy drink. A teaspoon of wine is given to a baby when she needs to be quiet for her own safety. Another time the baby is found drugged. Some smoking of cigarettes and pipes by adults.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Book of Dust, Book 1: La Belle Sauvage is the first in what author Philip Pullman calls an "equel" trilogy that matches up with his trilogy His Dark Materials. You don't have to read the first trilogy to follow this book, but it really helps. The main character in His Dark Materials, Lyra, is a baby in this story, but still has an important part to play. Eleven-year-old Malcolm and 16-year-old Alice try to save her from a kidnapping and a flood, and from a mentally unstable man who constantly stalks them. This man is maimed, shot, beaten, stabbed, and eventually killed. He beats his own daemon (companion animal that represents part of his spirit) and is said to have an unhealthy interest in young boys. A teen girl is held down by her arms with the threat of sexual violence. Kids are shot at and black out when they're hit on the head. Many die in the catastrophic flood, including friends close to Malcolm whose building collapses on them. Also of note: There's plenty of drinking and some smoking among adults, with Lyra given a sip of alcohol to keep her quiet in a dangerous situation. A sex scene is witnessed by Malcolm from the neck up, with moaning. Strong language is infrequent, but sometimes includes "s--t" and (once) "f---ing." Similar to the His Dark Materials trilogy, La Belle Sauvage deals with some deeper religious and philosophical issues. Freedom of thought and expression fight against religious intolerance. Malcolm and Alice are brave and resourceful in the face of much hardship.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bynatalie r. November 29, 2018

A great story with adult themes

Philip Pullman has drafted a spell binding wonder. The storyline is engaging, the lead characters enchanting and the pace exciting.
Beware this book is far from... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byBooklover425 June 3, 2020

A story so alike but so unlike the first.

Yes, this story is more violent and has more swearing and sexual content than the first. However, the way I see it is that the first series is more innocent, ju... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byPsyche. April 27, 2020


This book is by far inappropriate for children of any age. I deem it 18+.

What's the story?

In THE BOOK OF DUST, BOOK 1: LA BELLE SAUVAGE, Malcolm is an 11-year-old who helps out in his parents' pub and across the river at a convent. When the nuns get a new charge at the convent, a 6-month-old baby named Lyra, Malcolm is fascinated with her and asks to see her whenever he's there. He's not the only one who's bent on seeing her. A creepy man named Bonneville comes to the pub one night asking about her. When Malcolm catches Bonneville beating his own daemon (animal extension of the human spirit that accompanies all humans in this world), he knows something is very off about him and vows to keep Lyra away from him. And then there's Lord Asriel, Lyra's father, who's forbidden by law from seeing his daughter. Asriel convinces Malcolm to help him, though, and they sneak over in Malcolm's canoe La Belle Sauvage. After Asriel visits Lyra, he makes his escape in La Belle Sauvage and promises to return the boat. The boat comes back by way of a Gyptian friend of Asriel's, and it's fixed up better than it ever was. Malcolm is thrilled until the Gyptian issues a warning: A massive flood is coming, and he should prepare La Belle Sauvage for the disaster. Not long after the warning, it starts to rain and rain. And in the chaos, Bonneville makes his move to kidnap Lyra.  

Is it any good?

As with the His Dark Materials trilogy, this "equel," not prequel, fascinates with its mixture of theology, philosophy, mystical fantasy, and those cool talking spirit daemons every human possesses. If it has one fault, it's that it builds up layer upon layer of mystery and then solves very little of it beyond who killed a spy near the beginning. Readers will want to know more about Bonneville, the villain, right away. The children are constantly stalked by this nightmarish man with few answers as to why. And why is he beating his daemon? And how is he almost controlling people's thoughts and opinions of him? It's so fascinating -- you can't say the word "fascinating" enough when describing this book -- yet we get no closer to understanding Bonneville in this first installment.

When the flood hits, La Belle Sauvage takes a surprising turn into the world of faeries, river gods, and the undead. Almost everywhere the canoe stops, the journey gets stranger, the stakes get higher. And your nails will get shorter and shorter. An abrupt finish promises more nail-biting until Book 2.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the League of St. Alexander in La Belle Sauvage. What happened when kids in the school were given the power to report on their teachers and friends? How did Malcolm's friendships change? How did the teachers' behavior change? How did the school as a whole suffer?

  • Were there any violent parts of the book that were hard to read? What makes Bonneville a particularly fearsome villain?

  • Did you read His Dark Materials before reading La Belle Sauvage? How do they compare?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy

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