SCAN Book Club: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

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Finally, The Secret Commonwealth is out, and we can slip back into Philip Pullman’s exquisitely crafted world of daemons, Dust, and danger. La Belle Sauvage, the first in Pullman’s ‘Book of Dust’ trilogy, left us with Lyra being safely rescued from the Magesterium by Malcolm Polstead and being placed in the care of Jordan College. The Secret Commonwealth opens with a 20-year-old Lyra working towards a degree, but her life isn’t as simple as just worrying about deadlines and how much washing she has to do like the rest of us. After her daemon Pantalaimon witnesses a murder, Lyra is thrown back into a perilous journey – but not North this time, but rather East, heading into Central Asia on the tail of some mysterious roses.

Lyra’s world remains as vivid and magical as we left it in The Amber Spyglass, but Lyra has changed drastically. Far from the imaginative child she was, she’s now a brutally rational adult – something that Pantalaimon hates so much that he leaves her. The Secret Commonwealth deals with heavy themes such as growing up, religious extremism, sex and romance. Pullman takes this time to examine the relationships between humans and their daemons, which can be far from the usual loving companionship shown in La Belle Sauvage and the Northern Lights trilogy. As daemons are necessarily a part of the human soul that exists outside of the body, Pullman explores what happens when two sides of yourself are at war with one another, as Lyra and Pan head off on the separate adventures that ultimately lead them to the same place.

Pullman also revisits Malcom Polstead, who has become a scholar, and his separate journey East, working in secrecy with the mysterious Oakley Street intelligence group. I enjoyed Malcom’s story hugely in La Belle Sauvage. Still, in The Secret Commonwealth, his sections were marred by the slightly disturbing fact that he is in love with Lyra, a girl 10 or 11 years his junior, and this is entirely normal. It is implied later on in the book that Lyra may be starting to return those feelings, although she is held back by her loyalty to Will, who we last saw in the heart-breaking conclusion to The Amber Spyglass.

Discomfort seems to be a prevailing theme for The Secret Commonwealth, as Pullman broaches several topics that closely resemble our world. As Lyra travels East, she encounters the flood of refugees running from the men who are destroying their homes and rose-growing gardens, reflecting our refugee crisis. The men destroying their roses are a faceless, multinational chemical corporation that thinks only of their profits – sound familiar yet? Sexual assault also appears in the book, as Lyra fights off some soldiers on a train, in a particularly tense and frightening scene that, as a woman, was deeply unsettling to read.

The secret commonwealth itself, the world of an unexplainable phenomenon that exists all around, appears as a symbol that all Lyra has lost since she’s grown up. She has lost her sense of magic, and so magic appears all around her to try and remind her what has been left behind. Whether it’s a flaming man in Prague or mysterious lights in the Fens, magic finds Lyra whether she wants to believe in it or not.

The Secret Commonwealth is sad, exciting, and strange all at once. The plot leaps forward in a way that pulls you with it, needing to find out what happens on the next page. Ending on a tantalising cliff-hanger, Pullman has successfully ensnared his readers for another harrowing trilogy that explores theocracy, philosophy, and politics in a way that no other fiction writer can.

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