The Secret Commonwealth

Philip Pullman

Book cover

I didn’t love everything about this book, but I respect Pullman for making some bold choices in it. This is sort of the “The Last Jedi” of His Dark Materials.

The stakes were low for PP in writing “La Belle Sauvage.” Since Lyra is an infant when that story takes place, it felt like more of a “Rogue One”-style side story with all new characters and a few compelling connections to the main story we know and love. (Sorry about my analogies if you are not a Star Wars fan.) However, in SC, we have jumped forward in time and Lyra, now 20-something, is again our protagonist. So the stakes are higher as we really revisit a beloved character.

PP doesn’t give us the spunky, tale-spinning Lyra that we know from the original trilogy. SC-Lyra is kind of a letdown. She hasn’t gone on to have greater and greater adventures over the last 10 years. She’s kind of become an unremarkable college student and is floundering a little. But this judgment isn’t just by me as a reader; Lyra herself is basically aware of this and it’s one of the causes of her personal difficulties. At the same time, Lyra retains a lot of the characteristics that we love about her–boldness, determination, a sort of inclusive openness to others. To me it feels like a credible portrayal of a young woman growing into adulthood, and I think “classic Lyra but now she’s 20” would have felt a little fanservicey.

Not a lot really happens in SC. It feels like a narrative bridge, and indeed cuts off just before what should be a climactic event. But, a lot of new characters, ideas, and plot threads are introduced, and I feel optimistic that PP will pay them off in the next volume. One thing I particularly enjoyed in this book was the geographic shift away from England to Central Europe, Asia Minor, and Central Asia. In the previous books we saw a lot of “Lyra’s Oxford” as well as various fantastical worlds, but not much else of Lyra’s mundane world. Here we do, and I think PP handles it well. One of the themes of SC is a sense that there’s a fundamental underlying unity between the folk traditions and hidden things in different places, and PP’s shift of location is an important part of establishing this.

I did feel a few character choices by Lyra and Pan in particular felt undermotivated, and there are one or two overly convenient coincidences that advance to plot, but overall this didn’t take away too much of my enjoyment.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars