Secret of the Common Wealth: A Major Disappointing Follow up to the His Dark Materials Trilogy
The Secret Commonwealth by Phillip Pullman
Philip Pullman is an incredible author. He wrote the His Dark Materials trilogy. A tale that started as a whimsical fantasy adventure about a young girl traveling north to save her best friend. But the story soon began to delve into the string theory, multiple worlds, a reimaging of the catholic religions and balancing the cosmos. Least to say it was deep, layered, surprisingly adult, incredibly imaginative, and somewhat controversial to some. But he made it work, balancing everything perfectly and created a brilliant masterpiece that I’ve seen few other books live up to. And since 2000, he’s been talking about a follow up called The Book of Dust. He released volume I in 2017 and it was good. It followed a new set of characters in the same world and it was just nice to return to it. Now Volume II The Secret Commonwealth is out and here is my review.
So what is it about? Much to my surprise, it once again follows Lyra. The protagonist of the His Dark Materials Trilogy. But now she is grown up and is doing her studies at Saint Sophias College and she is not the person she used to be. She had grown cold, snooty and began to become influenced by new age philosopher who teaches about a world without daemons (In Lyra's world part of the soul is outside the body as an spirit animal. These partial souls are called daemons.) What she begins to believe in contradicts who she used to be and the adventure she went through as a child. Pan, her daemon, is frustrated with this and the two fight all the time and begin to hate each other. Because of their adventure before in the previous trilogy, the two can separate unlike everyone. Pan runs off often in the middle of night because he just can’t stand her.
One night, Pan runs off and witnesses a murder. He takes the wallet of the dead man. He takes it to Lyra as proof of what he saw. Begrudgingly against her snooty mindset she decides to investigate. It is soon revealed, the magisterium, the authoritarian religious organization (That were one of the bad guys in the original novels) is bigger and stronger than ever, having infiltrated much of the many governments in Europe and bending it to their will. They want everyone to follow them without question and will destroy any magic or phenomena that defies their teachings. Then there is tiny small movement of aging spies called Oakly Street though and they are failing in the battle against the Magisterium.
The murder happens to be at the heart of these warring sides. The victim was a professor and botanist who researched these strange roses that grow in the middle of the desert. They eesm to have a the drug like quality that let users see the elementary magical particles known as dust that proves the existence of parallel worlds. Something the magisterium wants no one to know about. And Lyra becomes a target of the Magisterium for the witness of the murder. Malcolm, a member of Oakly Street takes her somewhere where she would be protected. Unfortunately because Lyra and her daemon are fighting, Pan runs away to find “her imagination,” to get her to be the old Lyra he used to know. With this happening, Lyra decides to travel to this rose garden. She read in the professor’s notes and learned lost daemons can be found there. Meanwhile Malcom is traveling there himself as an Oakly Street spy. We follow their parallel journeys.
So let’s start with the bad before the good, because just much to talk about. And a good point to start with is Lyra. The Lyra all the fans know is adventurous, curious, brash, and compulsive. Though by the end of the original trilogy she was more mature, she was still Lyra. This Lyra I do not recognize. She is snooty, yet shy as door mouse who refuses to believe anything if it’s not logical. Nothing about her personality is recognizable, which is so unrealistic. Take any person on this planet, and if you know him (or her) as a child and as an adult, you still recognize them as the same person. The class clown will still crack jokes. Their taste in media and foods may remain the same. Introverts may still be introverted and so forth. They just don’t morph into another person entirely. And this Lyra is just so unlikable and not to mention boring. In fact her journey consists of her riding trains with little adventure at all. And there is no arc. She does not rediscover an old sense of adventure or anything. She’s just so bland and nothing of the Lyra fans love so much, is even present. She also very sad and she sees tragedies along the way. It seemed at points she may suffer from PSTD as well, but with the rest of the world being so depressing it’s hard to tell if she suffers from anything. The world is just harsh. Speaking of depressing, the world is not only sad, it is devoid of all magic. In the original series it was a grounded world with magical elements. But none of that was present here with the exception of an out of nowhere chapter that meant little to the rest of the story. The story is very long, aimless, and boring. Then there is a twist that is not good. Malcom who is thirty something is destined to fall in love and marry Lyra according to some scared text. Lyra is not only twenty but Malcom knew Lyra from a baby through her youth which makes the relationship creepy. Not only is this weird, the majority of fans have been dreaming and writing fan fictions of Lyra and Will (Her love interest from the previous novels) finding one another for twenty years. We fans want nothing more than for them to be together. So the Malcom and Lyra concept is so disappointing. Not just to me, but to many fans. Take a browse on Goodreads and you’ll see what I mean. Also there’s some real contradictions from the first books. In The Golden Compass it was clearly explained a person with a daemon is like person without a head. There was a boy who had his daemon cut away and a town ran him out of town so he could die in the cold because he was a monster to them. Yet Lyra travels without a daemon in this novel with little trouble at all. Also in the previous books people could not be separated from their daemons. It made that so clear. There was in a sailor who had a dolphin daemon and could only take a few steps away from the shore. Then when a demon is cut away, the human dies or become zombie like. But now in this book Pullman breaks his own rules and multiple people can lose their demons with little ramifications. What happened to that unbreakable bond? The fear of those without? Why are so many people without daemons? Why aren’t they ill or dead? With Lyra, she had to give up Pan in order to travel to hell from another world in a previous novel and went through horrible excruciating pain and it was a miracle she survived. But these others went through nothing like that. Its just really annoying to see Pullman break the rules of the world he created. Also the world detail is weak.
The good? Despite the fact this book is huge disappointment, there are moments that shine and the reader can see the potential of what this book could be. And most of these scenes involves Malcom’s spy work. Those bits were tense, well written, exciting, and more imaginative than Lyra’s snooze fest. I never considered how a spy story could be so exciting in Lyra’s world, but I really wish this book was just that. It would have been so much better. Also the rose garden does provide an interesting mystery.
Overall, this is a huge disappointment. I am a die hard fan of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, and I felt that Pullman took so long to write this because he wanted it to be perfect. But now it seems like he had a destination and no idea of how to get there and destroyed Lyra in the process. More than anything I wish he just continued with Malcom as spy and left Lyra alone. I rather not know how her life turn out, than to learn how sad her life had become. And I’m sure many fans agree with me on that. But even without the super fan goggles, it is a real boring long slog to get through. And even non fans may not find enjoyment in this. Unfortunately I can’t recommend this book to anyone.
Overall Rating: A Sad Tragic Major Disappointing Follow Up To The His Dark Materials Trilogy
1/2 Smoothie out of Four