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.