Georgiana Derwent's Reviews > The Secret Commonwealth

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
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As someone who’s loved His Dark Materials for the best part of two decades and who enjoyed the first instalment of this new trilogy, I was very excited to pick this up. Having read it, I have mixed feelings.

It’s set around ten years after the events of the Amber Spyglass or twenty years after La Belle Sauvage. It’s primarily focussed on a twenty-year-old, student Lyra, but Malcolm from LBS gets almost equal billing. It’s set entirely in their world, with none of the forays to parallel worlds that were the hallmarks of the second two books of the original series. The main strands of the interlocking plot include: Lyra and her daemon, Pan, falling out over philosophy and separating (leading to his quest to “find her imagination” and her quest to reunite with him), a mystery relating to strange roses with a connection to Dust, and a plot by a sinister agent of the Magisterium to consolidate the organisation’s power and put himself at its head.

I’d say that Northern Lights/The Golden Compass was clearly children’s literature, the other two original books were crossover, and La Belle Sauvage trod an awkward balance between YA and adult. But it’s hard to see this as anything but straightforward adult literature, from the age of the protagonists, to the themes, to some specific scenes and plotlines.

On the positive side, it’s simply amazing to be back in Pullman’s imaginative and fully developed world, to meet well-loved characters again, and to enjoy his great writing. With Lyra front and centre, with the action spanning continents, and with questions of politics and philosophy front and centre, this feels more like the original His Dark Materials than LBS’s narrow scope managed. Some of the philosophical debate was interesting. And there were some amazing individual chapters and side-stories thrown into the mix — the one about the princess, her daemon, and the dancer was the real standout for me.

On the downside, the various plots felt a bit disjointed and though they were all vaguely interesting, none of them completely captured my imagination. It was oddly depressing to see such a beloved character as Lyra in a detached, depressive state, and the idea that daemons can abandon their person (or vice versa) was again quite a downer and also didn’t seem entirely consistent with the spirit of the original trilogy. The way this book made it seem almost commonplace diluted the impact of Lyra and Pan’s sacrifice in the world of the dead in Spyglass.

The Magisterium’s increasing power combined with Lyra’s uncertain status made it feel like all the drama of the earlier books was for naught. And linked to that, following on from a series in which the protagonists literally kill god and open the doors to the afterlife, while travelling through multiple worlds and forging a soulmate connection, the stakes, scope and scale of this instalment felt a bit limited.

Finally, there’s a possible romance angle between Lyra and Malcolm, which doesn’t really go anywhere in this book, but definitely seemed to be being set up for the finale. While I like both of them as individuals, this freaked me out a bit, partly because it’s hard to think of Lyra with anyone but Will, and partly because of the way Malcolm knew her as a baby and then as a student of his. Incidentally, I was also a bit discomfited by the sheer number of references to rape and sexual assault in this volume.

I’ve given this three stars, which is perhaps a bit harsh given the quality of the writing and imagination on display. I’m undoubtedly influenced by the disconnect between my expectations and the reality. Overall though, I think it’s a fair reflection of the balance between good and bad on display here. If you’re a fan, I would cautiously recommend it, for the excitement of a trip back to Pullman’s world, but prepare to be a bit disappointed at best, actively depressed at worst.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 15, 2019 – Finished Reading
November 15, 2019 – Shelved
November 15, 2019 – Shelved as: fantasy

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