The Secret Commonwealth

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier instalments in this series. You can read my reviews of these novels by clicking the links below:

His Dark Materials:  Northern Lights | The Subtle Knife | The Amber Spyglass | Short Stories

The Book of Dust:  La Belle Sauvage

The Secret Commonwealth was written by Phillip Pullman and first published in 2019. The novel is the second part of The Book of Dust series, set 20 years after the events of La Belle Sauvage and seven years after The Amber Spyglass. The novel tells the continuing story of Lyra Silvertongue – heroine of the critically acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy – and so I would strongly advise that you read all four of the previous novels to have any idea of what is going on.

Lyra Silvertongue is now twenty years old and has a problem. She no longer likes her dæmon. Ever since Lyra began reading the work of two philosophers who deny the existence of dæmons, she and Pantalaimon have been arguing more and more. Lyra feels that Pan is too critical of things that he does not understand, while Pan feels that Lyra has lost the creativity that he admired in her as a child. The rift between them has led to Pan spending more time wandering alone at night. This is how he comes to witness a murder.

Pan is shocked to see two men savagely ambush another, but is drawn into a larger mystery as he and Lyra uncover the missing man’s belongings. The botanical samples and notes that he carried seem innocent enough at first, but as Lyra reads the man’s journal she uncovers an incredible story about a rose with mystical properties and the Blue Hotel – a place were only dæmons can go. When her room is overturned by others who are desperate to find this research, she learns that she has an unexpected friend in her former tutor, Malcolm Polstead – a man who she is connected to in ways she could never have imagined.

When a particularly vicious argument causes Pan to run away, Lyra is convinced that he must have gone in search of the Blue Hotel. Desperate to find him, she sets out on an epic journey across Europe and beyond. However, danger follows in her footsteps. People are naturally fearful of those who do not have dæmons, and villains from Lyra’s past are desperate to get hold of her in order to have their revenge…

This is a really hard review for me to write, as I have been looking forward to this book for years. Although I was disappointed by La Belle Sauvage, my nostalgia for His Dark Materials really gave me high hopes for its sequel. I adore the Lyra of Northern Lights – the girl who brought Bolvangar down and tricked the King of the Armoured Bears. I was really excited to find out what kind of person she had become as an adult. Unfortunately, the result was not entirely satisfying.

While it was wonderful to revisit Lyra’s Oxford once again, my biggest problem with The Secret Commonwealth was its sheer length. The novel pushes 700 pages and certainly felt it. While I found the early chapters, in which Lyra and Pan investigated the murder, to be utterly gripping, the plot soon slowed to a crawl as more and more threads were added to it.

While Pullman’s previous novels contained complex themes, The Secret Commonwealth is the first instalment of the series that I would say was probably too difficult for younger readers to enjoy. The story this time around has no characters under the age of twenty and the dialogue contains some stark criticisms of organised religion, politics and philosophy that touches very close to current events. Beyond this, there just is not enough to really hold the attention of a young teen.

The Secret Commonwealth also contained some incredibly adult scenes. While the earlier novels could be violent and frightening in places, this book was just dark. The worst violence in the story is almost exclusively focused on the female characters, who still largely seem to be a lot weaker and less effectual than their male counterparts. There is one act of violence towards the end of the novel that left a particularly bad taste in my mouth. This involved the sexual assault of a major character in a sequence that was gratuitous and purely used for shock value. This scene added nothing at all to the character’s development, and I found it especially disheartening due to the fact that a similar fate befell a different female protagonist at the end of La Belle Sauvage…

The narrative flips between the third person perspectives of four primary protagonists – Lyra, Pantalaimon, Malcolm and Olivier Bonneville – with occasional chapters that focus on other secondary characters. As with the earlier instalments, I personally felt that this was too much. The focus jumped around a lot, giving us glimpses into the characters at different points in their journeys with no true sense of the passage of time.

None of these sub-plots received any degree of closure, which brings me to another problem. The Secret Commonwealth is a middle novel of the worst kind, acting as an extended build up to the final act. While characters are moved into position, no threads are tied up and the story ends on a horribly abrupt cliff-hanger. This cut off the action in mid-flow and raised many new questions in its last couple of pages without answering any of them.

In terms of characterisation, I was also left underwhelmed. The Lyra of The Secret Commonwealth is a pale shadow of what she one was. Gone is her confidence and skill at weaving tall tales, apparently swallowed by her newfound love of nihilistic philosophy (although I never really felt this in the novel). While Lyra did get some of her personality back as the story progressed, it still frustrated me to see how dependant she was on others – particularly her male friends.

Pantalaimon also posed a problem. While he was certainly more sympathetic than Lyra, I never really got a feel for where the animosity between them began, and so his character arc ultimately made as little sense as Lyra’s. Pan frequently felt as though he was spoiling for a fight and his arguments with Lyra seemed to be provoked by nothing. While Pullman followed his solo quest to Germany for a while, Pan seemed to fade from the story in its final act and I am not even sure what became of him during the climax.

Malcolm’s chapters are a little more interesting, as he seems to be a lot more in control than Lyra, though I must admit that I found his attraction to her to be a bit unsettling. While I have no issue with the age gap (they are both adults), the fact that Malcolm has known her from birth and seemed to have some attraction to her as an underage student made this very creepy. As with Pan, the events that transpired in Malcolm’s final scene also left his fate uncertain, which was incredibly frustrating!

Beyond these three, The Secret Commonwealth had a vast cast of secondary characters across many different countries. Everywhere that Lyra and Malcolm travelled seemed to introduce a new host of friends and foes, many of whom had not appeared in any previous instalments. This often meant that I found myself flipping back through the story to remind myself of who belonged to which faction, as many characters were name-dropped and received little development as the story progressed.

I think that I’ve made my point. While I did like The Secret Commonwealth more than La Belle Sauvage, I still felt that it had many problems with its pacing and characterisation. Here’s hoping that all of this build-up leads to something more satisfying in the finale!

The Secret Commonwealth can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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