The sequel to 2017’s La Belle Sauvage, and the second part of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust ‘equel’ trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth is set nearly two decades later, and eight years after The Amber Spyglass, with Lyra still living in Oxford, but finally as a student at the university rather than a permanent house guest.
Like its dæmon characters, The Secret Commonwealth is a strange beast. While it’s closest to the structure of Northern Lights, with Lyra setting out on a long journey to discover more about Dust, the narrative follows three characters rather than one, all on similar but separate quests. Pullman does a good job of making Lyra similar but different, in this noticeably darker tale, and it’s good to see her at centre stage again. Yet it lacks the narrative thrust of a clearly-defined purpose.
It was obviously never going to be possible to match the scale and weight of the original trilogy’s world-hopping, angel-battling story, but it’s slightly disappointing that the consequences for Lyra’s world of all that action seem to be negligible. The Magisterium, a huge, authoritarian religious organisation, is more powerful than ever, with a newly elected leader. But it’s not just religion which comes in for criticism, with pharmaceutical companies and government playing a part too. It also goes further in reflecting current affairs, with violence in the Middle East leading to a refugee crisis.
But possibly the biggest new idea is its critique of reductive reason in ideas which reflect The Divided Brain. It features a novel-in-a-novel that’s popular among young people, including Lyra, which makes the case for pure rationality. Her rejection of anything that’s not measurable, including imagination and emotion, causes a rift between Lyra and Pantalaimon, her pine-marten shaped dæmon companion, forming a central plank of the story.
Pullman is in a unique position to critique both extremes, as a prominent atheist and humanist, but also a wildly creative author who has imagination in abundance. Yet the themes occasionally get in the way of the story, with discussion of the contents of a book not as interesting as weaving ideas into the narrative. The story is reasonably interesting, but less readable than La Belle Sauvage and frequently reliant on coincidence. It also once again leaves more questions than it answers, putting a lot of pressure on the third and final instalment to wrap things up in a satisfying way.