I recently read Philip Pullman’s second novel in his second trilogy in the His Dark Materials universe, The Book of Dust. This volume is entitled The Secret Commonwealth. You can read my take on the first book in this trilogy, La Belle Sauvage, here.
Whereas La Belle Sauvage took place some years before the original trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth takes place some years afterwards. Set as ever in a parallel universe where each human has a “daemon” – a kind of spirit animal that manifests outside their bodies – our heroine Lyra now a twenty-something student at Jordan College in Oxford. When her daemon Pantalaimon witnesses a murder, this triggers a new quest involving mysterious roses that takes Lyra on a journey to the east. The ever Machiavellian Magisterium once again finds her a person of interest and attempts to hunt her down.
Malcolm, the eleven year old hero of the previous instalment, is now in his early thirties. His dangerous journey during the flood when he saved Lyra as a baby informs this adventure, as do the events of the original trilogy (especially what took place in the world of the dead). It’s nice to have him back here, and other beloved characters, including Farder Coram of the gyptians, also make a welcome return.
The prose style is consistently gripping, even though it does jump around between multiple characters more than I would prefer. In addition, it is quite slow in places, leading to a rather abrupt ending that feels less like a cliffhanger and more like a point where the book was just too damn long and had to stop somewhere. On the plus side, Pullman seems to be using this story – in particular new characters such as extreme rationalist Simon Talbot – as something of a corrective balance to the message in His Dark Materials. Whereas that story challenged religious dogma, superstition, and unquestioning obedience to religious authority, this one challenges blinkered adherence to rationalist philosophy that allows no room for the unexplained, the supernatural, and – in a sense – the divine (as reimagined by Pullman in the enigmatic cosmic “Dust”). There are also allusions to recent history, including the Syrian refugee crisis.
This is a dark, melancholy, more grown-up work than the original books. Frankly I don’t think it is necessarily all the better for that. In fact, I really miss the fantastical beings – armoured bears, spectres, angels and so on – and sheer imaginative scale that populated the multiple worlds of Pullman’s earlier masterpiece. Such things do turn up here, but only occasionally. Instead, we get a swearier piece, with unpleasantness including a sexual assault. Was it necessary and contextually justified? Perhaps. Pullman’s argument is that Lyra has grown up, and therefore so have her readers. I must say though, despite finding much to admire in The Secret Commonwealth, I still emphatically prefer the earlier books.