The Secret Commonwealth: Thought-provoking and complicated

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsRay  The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsJana)

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsWith the release of La Belle Sauvage, readers were finally able to return to the universe of Philip Pullman‘s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy after a seventeen year wait. The story was a prequel to the original trilogy (though Pullman described the new series not as a sequel, but an ‘equel.’) Being only a baby, it was not Lyra who took centre stage in that novel, but a young boy called Malcolm Polstead, who used his boat La Belle Sauvage to rescue Lyra from a terrible flood and an even more terrible man in pursuit.

Now in the latest addition to the series, The Secret Commonwealth (2019), Lyra returns in full force. She is a twenty-year-old enrolled at St Sophia’s, a women’s college at Oxford. There are many wry nods to her childhood at Jordan College (at one point Lyra piously tells the Master of Jordan College that she’d never be allowed in the Retiring Room, where, of course, the first tale famously began), which will no doubt please fans of the original series. But the young adult Lyra we meet is very different to the girl we knew.

Pullman is clearly writing a self-consciously adult book. The Lyra we meet swears, drinks, has dalliances with Gyptian boys. There are glimmers of the fearless and imaginative child we knew, but this Lyra is also more melancholy and introspective than she was before. Her once infallible relationship with her daemon Pantalaimon is strained, and a question which was never posed to the childhood readers of the previous trilogy is asked: what happens when a person does not like their daemon? And, perhaps more interestingly, what kind of internal conflict does this symbolise?

With this new conflicted Lyra, Pullman explores the ramifications of her first adventure and what it cost her. The books we read in childhood are so often ended with every plot thread neatly tied up and the insinuation of a happily ever after, but the trauma that characters go through and the inevitable fallout thereafter are seldom explored. Seeing Lyra deal with the consequences of losing Will, of trying to rationalise the fantastical adventures of her childhood, make for truly compelling reading. Meanwhile, Pantalaimon’s struggle to reconcile his animosity toward Lyra and his disconnectedness from her, and his inability to understand the changes she’s undergoing and their increasing estrangement, lead him to undertake an impressive task in the hope that he can return Lyra to her old self — the one who loved him. And Malcom Postead, now possessing a doctorate and teaching at Jordan College while acting as an agent of the clandestine Oakley Street organization, is struggling with new conflicts between his duties to the college and his duties to his country … and the complicated feelings between himself and Lyra.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsPullman expands his universe to incorporate timely issues of the modern day: he touches on the refugee crisis and pharmaceutical companies trying to make gains at an expense; the fraught political situation in Lyra’s world is not so far removed from our own. Many themes will resonate with the readership that would have read HIS DARK MATERIALS as children, who have grown up into a world fraught with these issues. Pullman’s portrayal of an entire world on the brink, of refugees risking literally everything for the faint promise of a better life elsewhere, of a precious Central Asian resource in decline and the chaos its loss would cause, is written with feeling and care, and its parallels to our own world are impossible to ignore.

We were both in agreement that some of the episodic elements of Pullman’s tale felt a little incongruous. The varying episodes of HIS DARK MATERIALS fitted together perfectly to contribute to the story as a whole, whereas the many elements of The Secret Commonwealth sometimes feel a little unfinished. Perhaps this is the nature of setting up intrigue for storylines that will concluded in the final instalment, and whilst we both agreed that we had complete faith in Pullman’s mastery of storytelling, we wondered whether this would be the case with a new author. This felt especially relevant, since we are discussing a novel which prominently features a young woman struggling between her childhood self’s blind belief in the extraordinary and her newly-adult self’s need for rationalisation and hard facts; as younger readers, we each implicitly trusted Pullman to tell the story of HIS DARK MATERIALS in the way he felt best and to whatever end he desired, while our adult selves now question and debate the merits of his authorial choices. (The irony was not lost upon either of us.) Moreover, the book felt overcrowded with ideas and people, with a surprising lack of nuance in the characterizations of the villainous characters introduced in this volume, though we’re each hopeful that the various diverging storylines and plots will be resolved satisfactorily in the eventual third instalment. But we felt that these characters, in particular, needed more examination in this novel in order for us to become fully invested in their efforts.

On the one hand, The Secret Commonwealth is a book self-consciously written for an adult audience, and we had several in-depth discussions about Pullman’s successes and failures in this venture. There are elements of murder, sex, espionage, and more at play, the difference being that they’re handled more overtly in THE BOOK OF DUST and, in particular, The Secret Commonwealth than the often-oblique ways those same themes were handled in the previous trilogy, and being more explicit doesn’t necessarily mean more successful storytelling. We noticed quite a few odd passages involving negative commentary on a character’s appearance in direct connection with their sexuality, and objected to the way Malcolm’s feelings toward Lyra were glossed over rather than given a proper examination in the same way that she devotes to exploring her own complicated feelings regarding him. The episodic nature of the tale resulted in, unfortunately, a distinct lack of consequences for seemingly important events, such as serious injuries that occur in one chapter and are never mentioned again (with one shocking exception near the end of the novel) or supposedly sympathetic characters who commit murder before casually joining a friend for dinner. It often seemed as though this book could have been trimmed down a little, or perhaps expanded into two separate novels, in order to either focus the reader’s attention onto Pullman’s core ideas or give them more room to be fully explored.

On the other hand, we enjoyed quite a lot about our return to Lyra’s world and to Lyra herself. Pullman’s voices for Lyra and Pantalaimon are as exactly right as they were when she was a mere slip of a girl; melancholy and world-weary though the pair might be, as strange and frightening as they’ve become to themselves, they were immediately recognizable to us as readers, and Lyra’s struggle to define herself and decide what kind of person she wants to be is instantly compelling. Pullman’s examination of what happens after extraordinary childhood adventures is thought-provoking and intelligent, and the chapters focusing on Lyra and Pan are unflinchingly honest. At The Secret Commonwealth‘s conclusion, Pullman springs a lot of new information on the reader, all of which is immediately tantalising and hooked us for the final BOOK OF DUST instalment, whenever it may arrive.

Published in October 2019. Return to the world of His Dark Materials—now an HBO original series starring Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, and Lin-Manuel Miranda—in the second volume of Philip Pullman’s new bestselling masterwork The Book of Dust. The windows between the many worlds have been sealed and the momentous adventures of Lyra Silvertongue’s youth are long behind her—or so she thought. Lyra is now a twenty-year-old undergraduate at St. Sophia’s College and intrigue is swirling around her once more. Her daemon Pantalaimon is witness to a brutal murder, and the dying man entrusts them with secrets that carry echoes from their past. The more Lyra is drawn into these mysteries, the less she is sure of. Even the events of her own past come into question when she learns of Malcolm Polstead’s role in bringing her to Jordan College. Now Lyra and Malcolm will travel far beyond the confines of Oxford, across Europe and into the Levant, searching for a city haunted by daemons, and a desert said to hold the truth of Dust. The dangers they face will challenge everything they thought they knew about the world, and about themselves.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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2 comments

  1. “Perhaps this is the nature of setting up intrigue for storylines that will concluded in the final instalment, and whilst we both agreed that we had complete faith in Pullman’s mastery of storytelling, we wondered whether this would be the case with a new author.”

    WHAT? What are you trying to tell us? A new author? He’s co-writing with somebody? What?

    Oh, or do you mean if this wasn’t a Philip Pullman book you’d have doubts?

    • Jana Nyman /

      We meant that if this wasn’t a Philip Pullman book, we’d have less faith in the author’s intentions and storytelling. Sorry that we weren’t more clear!

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