Book Review: “The Secret Commonwealth” (by Philip Pullman)

It’s hard to convey just how excited I was when I found out that Philip was writing a sequel to his wildly successful and influential His Dark Materials. I’d loved those books so much, and the prospect of returning to the world–to say nothing of once again following the adventures of Lyra and Pantalaimon–was almost too much.

And then La Belle Sauvage was published, and it was everything I wanted. Though set several years before the events of The Golden Compass, it was just so wonderful and enchanting to be back in the same quasi-Victorian novel of that first book, and to see the tumultuous events that led up to Lyra being granted sanctuary at Jordan College.

I absolutely loved the first book and, if possible, I loved the sequel even more.

The Secret Commonwealth takes place several years after the events of His Dark Materials. Lyra is now a student at Oxford, though she has increasingly found herself in conflict with her beloved dæmon Pantalaimon, who believes that she has lost her powers of imagination. Meanwhile, the Magisterium is up to its old tricks, with the sinister and cunning Marcel Delamare manipulating events and attempting to find Lyra. And then there is Malcolm Polstead, a Scholar at Oxford and part of a secret service organization known as Oakley Street, who attempts to both help Lyra and work against the repressions of the Magisterium.

One gets the feeling reading this book that Pullman is, to a degree, writing the story that he first envisioned when he finished The Golden Compass. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who felt that the story sort of went off the rails a bit in both The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, which are so different from the first book that it’s sometimes hard to remember you’re reading part of the same series. (Let me be clear. I LOVED those books, but they were also not at all what I thought they were going to be when I finished The Golden Compass). Here, however, we stay strictly within Lyra’s world, and I personally loved that aspect of it.

The Secret Commonwealth is a bit more sprawling than other entries in the series, and we actually get to learn a bit more about what makes the Magisterium tick, largely through the perspective of Marcel Delamare. (We also get some fascinating glimpses into his personal connections to Lyra). I actually enjoyed these parts of the book quite a lot, not just because I love it when we hear from the villains (though I love that) but also because we learn a little bit about the history of this sprawling and increasingly repressive organization.

As with His Dark Materials, The Secret Commonwealth contends with some of the most pressing issues of our time. While, of course, much of Pullman’s biting criticism is reserved for organized religion and its dogmatism, he also gets in a few well-aimed digs at postmodernism, moral relativism, and rigid rationality. In terms of its critique of religion, Pullman has also expanded the range a bit, and the inclusion of “men from the mountains,” who happen to be from the Middle East and are repressive, dogmatic, and violent, seems sometimes to be a bit too on the nose in its correlation to certain groups in that area (their resemblance to ISIS is surely not an accident).

For all of its criticisms, however, the book is essentially an act of humanism. Pullman has a profound faith in the essential goodness of human nature, and there is no better illustration of this than the character of Lyra. Though she has grown up quite a bit from when we last saw her, there is much about her that accords with what we learned about her in His Dark Materials. She is still impulsive and brave and sometimes foolhardy, but she is also deeply sympathetic as a character, and she has a drive to be kind to others less fortunate than herself.

Yet Lyra can also be tremendously frustrating, and her growing rift with Pan is the greatest example of this. By the time that the novel takes place, she’s been falling into the trap of those new thinkers who argue either that there is no meaning to the world or that one should only use logic and reason. Though Pan tries to talk her out of this, she is so much under their sway that they end up fighting more often than not. And, as the novel makes clear, the events of the previous trilogy continue to cast a long shadow, particularly her decision to leave him beyond in the Land of the Dead.

By the end of The Secret Commonwealth we are presented with almost as many questions as we have answers. One of the narrative cruxes of the novel involves a certain variety of rose, which may provide some sort of elevated form of consciousness, and while many of the characters talk about it, it remains unclear exactly what it is or why the Magisterium wants it. We also don’t quite know much about the legendary city that Lyra seeks, except that it is supposedly the abode of dæmons who have been separated from their people. Assuredly, many of these–though probably not all–will be resolved by the end of the final volume.

All told, The Secret Commonwealth reveals that Pullman is still a master storyteller, writing at the height of his powers. I found myself absolutely enchanted by the story from the first page to the last, and as always this is a world that you can truly lose yourself in. The novel, at least for me, was a very quick read. While I wanted to take my time and savour it, I ultimately finished it far too quickly. I have a bad feeling that it’s going to be quite a while until we see the concluding volume. Sigh. Looks like it might be time to re-read the original trilogy again.