Book Two in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth, a trilogy that functions both as a prequel (Book One, La Belle Sauvage) and a sequel, is a deeply disturbing and at times very dark read that sees the main characters from La Belle – Lyra, Pan and Malcolm, thrown into personal and professional turmoil as their world and lives are threatened and, as a consequence, how they’re catapulted into life-altering journeys.
Commencing with a murder that Pan bears witness to, it’s a while before the significance of the death becomes apparent. What’s of concern to the reader is not only the fact that Lyra and Pan can separate (those who’ve read The Amber Spyglass will recall the heart-wrenching circumstances that facilitated this ability), but that they’re at terrible odds with each other. Now twenty, Lyra is a student at Jordan College in Oxford and, despite what happened in her childhood, is filled with the new, rationalist and materialist philosophies of the latest academic and literary “celebrities”, notions which cast doubt on what Lyra has not only experienced, but sees around her on a daily basis. This makes Pan totally despondent as he tries to debate the futility and absurdity of these viewpoints. But whatever Pan says, it simply makes Lyra more determined than ever to try and adhere to them. Initially, the tension between the two is just disheartening to read, but when you begin to understand this isn’t simply a personal change in perspective for Lyra, but part of a much broader way of thinking and being – a kind of existential crisis – and which has strong links to the growing might of the Magisterium, then it’s apparent much darker forces are at play.
When Lyra is ordered from her lodgings under a slim pretext and Pan, fed up with what she’s become, decides to go on a quest for her “imagination” (which he is convinced has been stolen from her), Lyra is left with no choice but to go and find him. Only, where Lyra believes he’s gone is linked to the murder Pan witnessed, the political and power plays moving in the wider world and, most strangely, the fact that a certain genus of rose, which can only be grown in parts of Asia, is being wiped out.
What follows, is a mighty quest that sees Lyra, Pan and Malcolm Polstead, who in his role as an agent of Oakley Street as well as someone who cares deeply for Lyra, crossing England, Eastern Europe and entering incredibly dangerous territory. In the meantime, moves are afoot to disband those who would protect what’s been important in the past – academic freedom, the right to free speech and faith, to imagine and create – as the Magisterium and the men behind it rise to incredible heights and gain unprecedented control. Not only are they seeking to quash any kind of resistance, but put an end to those who represent that: the central figure being Lyra Silvertongue.
While the book plumbs some terrible depths – I am thinking particularly of a scene on a train with Lyra and some soldiers, as well as veiled and real threats levelled at all the main players – there are also some enriching and warm acts of kindness to offset these. They occur among friends and familiar characters (many of whom tread the pages of the book), but in a heartening gesture, often from strangers, some with no agenda but wishing to be of aid. But what is most exciting in this book is following Lyra’s pursuit – not so much the physical one she undertakes to find Pan, but the spiritual and psychological one she embarks upon as slowly and surely her eyes are (re)opened to what she’s wilfully closed them: The Secret Commonwealth.
This is a highly political, deeply engaging read that keeps you turning the pages and often while on the edge of your seat. A fabulous addition to an incredible series. I cannot wait to see where Pullman (and Lyra, Pan and Malcolm – and the rest!) take us next.