I absolutely love Philip Pullman’s writing. Coupled with Michael Sheen’s narration, The Secret Commonwealth felt like being read to by an old friend.
Set about twenty years after the events of its predecessor, La Belle Sauvage, The Secret Commonwealth focuses on Lyra’s journey to be reunited with Pantalaimon after they are estranged from one another. Pursued by the Magisterium, Lyra travels across Europe and into Asia, encountering the inexplicable and impossible along the way, which forces her to look at the world from a different perspective.
There are so many things I can rant about in this book; I suspect my love for Philip Pullman’s writing and the His Dark Materials trilogy has blinded me to any of the book’s shortcomings. But what struck me first and foremost was Pullman’s deft interweaving of science and fantasy, which Lyra struggles to reconcile throughout the book. In The Secret Commonwealth, nods to philosophy and particle physics go hand-in-hand with bog fairies, boys-turned-djinn, and, of course, dæmons. As a reader, I adored the fantasy element; as a scientist, I appreciated the respect for science and education; as both, I loved that Pullman’s narrative showed how, in Lyra’s world, one cannot exist independent of the other.
The Secret Commonwealth departs from La Belle Sauvage, quite literally, by leaving Lyra’s familiar home in Oxford to journey abroad. As Lyra flees from the Magisterium, she journeys through Eastern Europe and into what would, for us, be Syria. Lyra’s world differs from ours in many ways, most notably in its religious history. As such, the Byzantine Empire still exists, and Constantinople has not become Istanbul. Alterations like this illuminate the depths and breadth of Lyra’s world, making readers all the more eager to explore it. However, while firmly rooted in its own world, The Secret Commonwealth alludes to issues that are very present in our own world, such as the plight of the refugees forced to flee Syria. As with the blend of science and fantasy, the threads linking Lyra’s world and our own make The Secret Commonwealth an enthralling read.
Another aspect I loved about The Secret Commonwealth – possibly my very favorite – is the attention Pullman pays to people’s relationship with their dæmons. While Lyra and Pantalaimon were clearly dear to each other in His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust trilogy delves even deeper into the central phenomenon of Lyra’s world, exploring the effects of mental health with a new, intriguing perspective. In La Belle Sauvage, readers saw Bonneville’s psychosis and how it led to him mutilating his own dæmon. In The Secret Commonwealth,we see how Lyra’s struggles with depression, self-hatred, and disenchantment affect her relationship with Pantalaimon. The consequences therein become the driving force behind her journey; in that way, The Secret Commonwealth is as much a mental and emotional journey as it is a physical one.
A minor note, without getting too spoiler-y: I don’t mind the potential romance developing in this story. I love the characters involved and want them both to be happy, and their individual journeys in The Secret Commonwealth show their independence and strength. I’m looking forward to seeing how Pullman develops that relationship in the next book.
If you’re looking for a strong story with elements of science, fantasy, and self-discovery, look no further than The Secret Commonwealth. A powerful, affecting read, this book is a perfect addition to the world of His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust.