Pullman has created something so special with Lyra’s world and the mythos of other worlds he set up in the original His Dark Materials trilogy. La Belle Sauvage, the first installment of this spin-off trilogy, took us back to Lyra’s beginning, giving up the wild story of her infancy and the two children who rescued her. This second installment fast forwards to years after the events of the original trilogy, when Lyra is grown, having just tipped over the cusp of adulthood. The final events of that first trilogy haunt her still, but she is convincing herself more and more that those events aren’t quite true. As she falls into the trap of rationality Pantalaimon, her dæmon, rebels against her loss of imagination. From there, the plot goes wild.
Seeing Lyra as an adult was both thrilling and heartbreaking. She’s been through so much by this point, but she’s begun to lose the ferocity and uniqueness that made her so compelling in His Dark Materials. Adult Lyra seems like a pale imitation of childhood Lyra, and Pan is incredibly upset about the change. Seeing the two of them at odds and at each other’s throats is incredibly uncomfortable. Dæmons are like the outward expression of a person’s soul, and so we can see that Lyra’s quarreling with Pan is at its core a level of self-hatred that is hard to stomach. The journeys taken in this book are made all the more poignant for it.
Something that I really love about this book is the multitude of plot lines happening simultaneously but coming across as spokes in the same story instead of separate stories that the reader hopes will come together. The jump from one plot to the next never felt jarring, but like a natural progression in the overarching story. Besides Lyra’s and Pan’s perspectives, we also get to see a lot of the story from Malcolm’s point of view, and a small bit from Alice’s, as well. Unlike La Belle Sauvage, which could technically be read without having first read His Dark Materials, The Secret Commonwealth would be incredibly confusing for readers who have not read both the first trilogy and La Belle Sauvage. The preceding four books are absolutely essential to both the understanding and enjoyment of this book.
My absolute favorite element of The Secret Commonwealth is the expansion of knowledge we’re given regarding dæmons. Strangely, this new information makes the dæmons more mysterious instead of less. There isn’t really any of this new knowledge that I can share in a review without somehow spoiling the plot, but it was all totally fascinating. The story also spanned much of Lyra’s world that we hadn’t seen up to this point, and it was interesting to see how it was eerily similar and radically different from our own world. We see how prejudice and fear of anyone who is different plague Lyra’s world as much as our own, and how religion so often inflames these prejudices instead of abating them.
I was completely enthralled by The Secret Commonwealth, but the ending felt so abrupt that it actually shocked me and left me a little angry. I felt cheated out of witnessing something that the entire novel had been building toward. While I am sure it happened, it did so off screen so to speak. Honestly, I frantically flipped back, hoping I had accidentally skipped a few pages. No such luck. Had I known how jarring I would find the ending I would’ve waited to read it until closer to the still unknown publication date of the final installment before reading The Secret Commonwealth. Also, as with its predecessor, this book has some pretty adult content and language, so I would definitely bill it more as YA than fantasy aimed at a middle grade audience.
Pullman wrote something wonderful in The Secret Commonwealth, despite the abrupt ending. Waiting for the final installment is going to be painful, but I have no doubt that it’ll be worth the wait. Pullman has yet to disappoint me, and I can’t wait to see how the phase of Lyra’s story ends.
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