- The Good: Oxford, dæmons, and themes of religion and skepticism
- The Bad: Lower stakes than His Dark Materials; cliffhanger ending
- The Literary: Beautiful prose that only a master can deliver
Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon Pantalaimon navigate their relationship with one another as Lyra becomes a young adult at college, but their situation becomes even more complicated when Pantalaimon witnesses a murder, and they are drawn into a dark and mysterious world of politics, religion, and power. Twenty years after saving baby Lyra in the Great Flood of La Belle Sauvage, Professor Malcolm fights for what he believes in, which includes keeping Lyra safe. Separately, they travel beyond Oxford and Europe, to a desert city haunted by lost dæmons.
I love the internal conflict that Lyra is dealing with as a young adult. It’s almost as if Pan and Lyra’s relationship has switched. Pan wants to explore and investigate, but Lyra is cautious and rational. Lyra’s adventures eight years ago now seem like a dream that happened to someone else. She’s grown up, but into a person she isn’t sure she likes, or at least someone her child-self would be disappointed to become. The magic of childhood is gone, and with adulthood comes skepticism, and Pullman seems to be exploring whether atheism and rationality are compatible with imagination and myth.
There’s a lot going on in Lyra’s world. The Magisterium plays serious politics, with Marcel Delamare leading the cause through espionage and lies. His alethiometer reader Olivier Bonneville, son of the man with the hyena dæmon in Belle Savauge, seeks to avenge his father, and both Delamare and Bonnevile have an unhealthy interest in Lyra. They are fantastic contemporaries of Mrs Coulter and continue Pullman’s theme of a corrupt and overbearing church.
Lyra’s relationship with Pan, with the home she’s always known, and with two adults in her life, Malcolm and Alice, changes drastically now that she herself has become an adult, and only adds to her view a world that’s complicated, indifferent, and literal. Her quest leads her to the Gyptians she knew in her youth, Ma Costa and Farder Coram, but though everyone is older than she, Lyra is reintroduced to a world that allows for fairies and jacky-lanterns and magic you can only see out of the corner of your eye.
There are a few specific parts of the story that I’m still processing, like a brutal sexual assault and a one-sided romantic relationship, neither of which seem necessary to this story. And I’m surprised Pullman that though has a small section explaining why not all dæmons exist as the opposite gender of their human, he doesn’t use that opportunity to create an even richer tapestry of life with sexual identity.
The Secret Commonwealth is much darker than the previous books in the series. Nothing is easy or clear-cut, and many of the situations and choices the characters make have no good outcomes. Needless to say, it’s not really a positive novel. As much as Pullman refers to this second series as an “equal” (instead of a prequel/sequel), I don’t think you’ll understand the nuances of this book without having read the previous four. Unfortunately, the journey east to investigate lost dæmons and rose oil doesn’t hold quite the same weight as eleven-year-old Lyra’s presence in the midst of the final battle between heaven and hell. But here’s hoping this cliff-hanger ending is merely the setup for a high-stakes finale to the series.
“You won’t understand anything about the imagination until you realize that it’s not about making things up, it’s about perception.”