The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth
Knopf Books for Young Readers
October 3, 2019
This review may contain spoilers from the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, as well as from La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth.
It has been seven years since the world-changing events of The Amber Spyglass. Lyra Belacqua, now known as Lyra Silvertongue, is twenty years old and a university student. She is still living in Oxford, albeit the Oxford of her world and not our own. And she has grown up, so much so that she and Pantalaimon—Pan for short—are not getting along, which must sound preposterous given that Lyra and Pan are one.
How can Lyra fight with her precious dæmon when her dæmon is a part of her very soul? How can Lyra fight with Pan of all people? Precious, precious Pan. But Lyra/Pan is a very different person from who she was in the His Dark Materials trilogy.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written for WWAC before, then you’ll know that the His Dark Materials trilogy is my all time favorite fantasy book series and that it greatly shaped who I am today. Which is why what I’m about to write about Pullman’s latest novel in The Book of Dust trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth, is not going to be easy.
Two years ago, I wrote as fair of a review as a super fan could muster for the first book in The Book of Dust trilogy, La Belle Sauvage, which, while at times was confusing, felt like an overall solid read for me. I read it on release in only a matter of days and then a second time more recently in audiobook form in preparation for The Secret Commonwealth. La Belle Sauvage was both easy and difficult to adore: easy because it was about a whole new set of characters, and thus was exciting and new, and difficult because it was about a whole new set of characters, and honestly, I just wanted to read about Lyra or Will. The Secret Commonwealth, on the other hand, has been, overall, difficult for me because the stakes are much higher given that it is about my beloved Lyra.
Starting out strong, The Secret Commonwealth pulled me back into Lyra’s world almost immediately. I took an extra day off to read this book, and that first day was magical. In chapter two, we are given a peek into Lyra’s college life at St. Sophia’s, her relationships with the other women at the college, her romantic and sexual relationships with men, and her overall state of mind.
It might be strange to say this but I could have read chapters upon chapters of Lyra’s life in Oxford. I gobbled up the first third of the book very quickly as it focuses primarily on Lyra’s life, on how Lyra has been coping—or not coping—with the aftermath of her adventures, and how she has embraced a more rational approach to the world, which, while important to her growth, has caused a bit of a rift with her dæmon who believes that she has lost her imagination. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how you look at it—the story pushes forward, sending Lyra and company out into the greater world and the focus shifts from Lyra’s life to bigger problems.
Similarly to the original trilogy, the Magisterium is back at it again, looking for ways to control the hearts and minds, souls and dæmons, of the people, both in Brytain and abroad in Europe, and Lyra is at the center of it given her brushes with Dust in the past, as well as given who her parents were. Unlike the original trilogy, however, the adventures, intrigues, and fantastical elements all feel so much more real.
I’ve said before that the His Dark Materials trilogy felt real to me when I read it, but apparently not as real as The Secret Commonwealth. This book feels even less fantastical and more grounded in today’s world, which was both good and bad. Good because I like to read books that make me think and question the status quo. Bad because I like to read books to escape. And The Secret Commonwealth did not help me to escape; in fact, it made me feel highly depressed and anxious.
Racism, xenophobia, and the refugee crisis. Sexism, violence, and rape. Propaganda, the suppression of free speech, and religious fundamentalism. Not to mention climate change, which was more of a focus in La Belle Sauvage—all of these things loom large in The Secret Commonwealth and are portrayed in a highly realistic and depressing way. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but if you’re looking for an adventure story similar to His Dark Materials, you’re not going to find it here, and, admittedly, I was looking for an adventure story similar to His Dark Materials.
I was looking for more worldbuilding, specifically about dæmons, which I think I got. The book primarily focuses on dæmons and what they mean for those who have to live with them. I was looking to tag along with Lyra into her tumultuous twenties. I was looking to feel connected to a Millennial-like Lyra, dealing with the reality of life in a world full of greed. I was looking to nod my head when Lyra was melancholy, only because I too have been melancholy in my twenties.
I was not looking for a story in which Lyra has very little agency. I was not looking for a story in which I am primarily shown Lyra being beaten down—figuratively and literally. I was definitely not looking for a story that includes an out of the blue gang rape scene that did not have any apparent purpose other than to further demoralize the main character!
I want to say that I remember glancing at a review of The Secret Commonwealth that called some elements of the story “dated,” and I would have to agree with that assessment, although “dated” is likely just a nice way of saying “problematic” or even “sexist” or just outright “gross.” Because while the gang rape scene was the epitome of everything I hate about fantasy/sci-fi novels written by men, there were other “dated” problems with Pullman’s story that gave me major pause.
For instance, Marcel Delamere, but especially Gerard Bonneville, the antagonists of the story, are vaguely coded as queer, and as such, they at times fall into the “depraved homosexual” trope. In fact, Pullman’s use of the word “homosexual” to describe Delamere (or to not describe Delamere, since in this case Pullman, for whatever reason, decided to make the point that Delamere “was not married and assumed that he was not homosexual,” as if these things somehow define his character) felt sanitized, as if the narrator was an out of touch straight man, uncomfortable with the idea of queerness and unsure of how to talk about it, which Pullman likely is given his past comments on trans rights. Representation matters, but, at least for me, this is not good representation, if it can even be considered representation at all, and it might have been better if Pullman, a straight man, had just left it out.
Overall, I don’t really know how I feel about The Secret Commonwealth. I’ve added it to my favorites list on Goodreads, but should I have? Is it really a favorite? Does it deserve five stars? Am I giving it five stars on Goodreads because of how important His Dark Materials was to me? Because, if I were to really be honest with myself, I would actually give this book two or three stars.
I enjoyed the first third of the book. I enjoyed seeing Lyra and Pan again, although their estrangement was awkward and Lyra’s heartbreak over Will was so difficult to read. I enjoyed learning more about dæmons and getting a glimpse of the wider world. I enjoyed seeing Malcolm as an adult. I enjoyed the character reveals and revelations. I enjoyed the way the discussions of rationalism versus imagination made me think.
But I did not enjoy Lyra’s decision-making—or lack of decision-making—and where she is left at the end of the book. I know that there’s going to be a final book, but why Philip Pullman? Why?