My main read over Christmas was ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ by Philip Pullman, the second volume in the Book of Dust trilogy following La Belle Sauvage two years ago. ‘La Belle Sauvage’ was essentially a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy in which we saw Lyra as a baby. The events in ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ take place about seven years after the end of that trilogy with Lyra now a 20-year-old undergraduate in Oxford. It opens with the murder of a botanist who had recently returned from a research trip to central Asia studying the effects of rose oil. The web of intrigue which follows this murder has implications for the authoritarian rule of the Magisterium and leads to Lyra and Malcolm undertaking separate journeys across Europe through to Turkey and Syria.
The first trilogy and ‘La Belle Sauvage’ have complex themes and ideas at their heart and have been widely read and enjoyed by older and younger readers alike. ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ is Pullman’s most adult book yet. Lyra is no longer the spirited and optimistic 12-year-old in her early adventures and is dealing with challenges which reflect this. She has lost the ability to read the alethiometer with such ease and unexpectedly finds herself in difficult financial circumstances. The most significant change is that she has fallen out with her daemon Pantalaimon due to his frustration with her total devotion to reason. They are one of the few pairings of human and daemon who are able to physically separate, something which is treated by strangers with suspicion. It is a deeply unsettling development but also one of the most thought-provoking aspects of the book given how well Pullman communicates the bond between human and daemon.
Many of the key themes and metaphors deal with prominent issues in current affairs – the refugee crisis, populism, radicalism and the corporatisation of academia being some of the most notable. Several characters from the previous books have important roles including Malcolm and Alice from ‘La Belle Sauvage’ and Hannah Relf and an ageing Farder Coram who also featured in ‘His Dark Materials’. The Magisterium capital in Geneva is also seen for the first time having been referenced in previous books.
‘The Secret Commonwealth’ isn’t as immediately thrilling as ‘La Belle Sauvage’, possibly slightly hindered at times by its epic scale at nearly 700 pages. I also think the way in which children navigate the complexity of the world Pullman has created is a big part of the appeal of the previous books even for older readers and I definitely felt the absence of any younger characters in ‘The Secret Commonwealth’. However, Pullman’s storytelling is thoroughly engaging and I am intrigued to see how the trilogy will conclude.
9 responses to “The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman”
I just bought this yesterday and can’t wait to dig into it…
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I really loved this book, too. It’s definitely the most adult book of the series; I believe Pullman mentioned he’d envisioned Lyra dealing with depression, which I can certainly see.
The human/daemon bond is explored in a really interesting way.
Yes, the tone of the book definitely suggests that. I found Lyra and Pantalaimon’s separation very unsettling – Pullman has written that aspect particularly well here.
Great review 🙂 I am yet to read this book, I felt a little underwhelmed by La Belle Sauvage. The number of pages also seems offputting but I think I’ll read at some point.
I preferred La Belle Sauvage overall. Hopefully the final book in the trilogy won’t disappoint.
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I’m yet to read but definitely will do after this great review.
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I just got round to reading this – your description of not being as immediately thrilling, the length of the book, and the protagonists all being adults are a good summary of the “feel” of the book. I was disappointed, but not sure if that is because all the books so far have left me to expect this to have been something different. I would be very interested to know what child readers of this book would think, although I guess most of the original readers will now be adults. As you say it will be interesting to see how the 3rd book pulls the complexity of this new take in with the rest of the series.
Yes, I agree, Pullman has always said he never writes specifically to appeal to children and this book definitely proves that. I’m still looking forward to the 3rd book!