Review of The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.
Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .
The second volume of Sir Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.
Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.
Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.

I can’t believe that it’s the second time this year that I have started to fall out of love with a series that started as a beloved trilogy. Yes, the author is at pains to tell us at the start that we are dealing with characters that are now grown up, but I felt that many of the situations were unnecessarily so. I fully accept going into this review that there will be people who will tell me I can’t compare this to HDM but, The Belle Sauvage didn’t leave me feeling this way. That being said, there were still plenty of parts which I enjoyed, but they were sadly overshadowed by the many I didn’t.

Firstly it was a largely enjoyable book, we have characters that we have been on quite the journey with and it’s interesting to see them now all grown up. Pullman does a great job as always of creating a vibrant world that is well crafted and easy to visualise. The opening pages have a real thriller/mystery feel and the descriptive writing style really does feed the senses. Being a believer in mystical creatures, fair folk and the like I immediately adored the sections involving the Secret Commonwealth, mentioned only briefly in La Belle Sauvage, these creatures of superstition and myth have a vital part to play this time. Their interlude going hand in hand with Lyra’s brief passage with the Gyptians and at a time when we revisit some much loved old friends. There were plenty of little nods back to earlier books with some like Iorek, as sadly no more of an honorary mention, but nonetheless I liked that the time was taken to tie everything in. i was especially delighted by the revelation of Mrs Lonsdale.

Lyra’s travels take her far and wide and as we are following more characters than just Lyra there really is so much to take in, many of their travels took them to places I have never visited but again the descriptive style made these places so easy to picture. Unsurprisingly the magisterium are still up to no good and play a large part in many of the darker moments, surprisingly as does Malcolm. I’m not sure how I feel about his characters progression, on the one hand he has succeeded in life but there is still clearly a part of him firmly entrenched on that bank outside the mausoleum and I can’t help but feel that Oakley Street groomed him from then on to become the man that he is within these pages.

Unfortunately I found that the book felt unnecessarily sexualised. It’s wrong to think that Lyra should still by chastely pining for Will, however, Philip Pullman seemed to be overly enthusiastic with the repeated mention of breasts and every male character (90% old men) seemed to have a fascination with younger partners, it felt almost predatory, pretty cringey and honestly a later chapter involving an incident on a train was just utterly unnecessary and felt added in just for shock value. I struggled greatly with the new dynamic between Lyra and Pan, finding it pretty much impossible to reconcile their changes and unbelievable that they would hold such a grudge.

I’m not sure what to make of the story line either and honestly I felt there was little clarity in that regard – everybody was doing lots of things but I’m still a bit lost as to what end. Everyone looks to be searching for each other for different reasons and I understood that and it was well done with a good sense of a thriller pace at times but the Rose oil and it’s link to Dust felt poorly articulated and I know it will all become clear in the final book, hopefully, as we finally understand the significance of the Blue Hotel and it’s link to the Roses that everyone seems to desperate for. Ultimately though, the story felt pulled in too many directions with little coheasion at times (the fire boy and water deamon ???) and character arc’s which filtered off into nothingness.

Whilst I now have reservations about the final book in the trilogy, I will continue on because I have come too far now with these characters not to.

3*

 

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