The Secret Commonwealth is the second book in Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust, a companion series to His Dark Materials. After reading (and loving) the first book in this series a few weeks ago, I was excited to continue on with it. I've been reading in a pattern lately; I alternate one novel from my Classics Club list with a novel of my choice. So, after taking about a week to read The Octopus by Frank Norris, I picked this one up next.
The plot of the novel is difficult to describe, as this is the middle book of a trilogy and it follows a few different characters on very different missions. Most of the focus is placed on Lyra, who is now an adult attending college. Her whole demeanor has changed from the girl she was in the previous books. Her feisty, courageous nature has been replaced with a melancholy, subdued one, and her relationship with her daemon Pan is very strained. Her previous adventures in the North feel like they happened in another lifetime, and her days have become normal and lonely. She is thrust into the thick of an adventure again, however, when Pan witnesses a brutal murder one night and comes into possession of some curious information about a mysterious breed of rose that can only be grown in a desert in the Middle East. It has some sort of connection to Dust, but the exact details of what it can do are vague. Reading about the rose sparks some sort of memory in Lyra, and she feels drawn to try and find the place where it grows. Before she can set out, however, she has a massive falling out with Pan and her focus shifts to healing the rift between them.
At the same time the Magisterium has been quietly consolidating their power. They are on the hunt for roses too, but their objective seems to be to destroy them. A new leader has emerged and he is also searching for Lyra, for reasons that start off unclear. Malcolm Polstead and Alice, the duo that rescued Lyra as a baby in La Belle Sauvage, are involved in the story as well. They are adults now too, with Alice working as a housekeeper at Oxford College and Malcolm working as a professor at a different university. A large portion of the story is told from Malcolm's perspective, as he is also working for a secret spy group and is tasked with investigating the roses. He is also trying to help keep Lyra safe, and finds himself starting to develop romantic feelings for her as the story goes on.
The novel follows the paths of these different characters as they embark on their separate adventures. The threads of each story slowly wind towards each other, with the novel ending on a cliffhanger. It is clear that everything will eventually come together, but The Secret Commonwealth offers little resolution to any of the storylines. Readers will have to wait for the last book in the trilogy to discover how Lyra's relationships with Pan and Malcolm, the business with the roses, and the Magisterium's plots turn out.
I did like this novel, but it definitely felt like a middle book to me. Unlike La Belle Sauvage, this is not a self-contained adventure at all. It's half of a story, and at over 600 pages, it felt like a lot of buildup to wade through for no resolution at the end. There wasn't anything wrong with the buildup itself though. As always, it was a treat to explore Pullman's alternate version of the universe. This story takes place entirely inside Lyra's world, but her travels in search of the roses bring her to Middle Eastern-inspired corners of it that we haven't visited before. It was interesting to see new pieces of it and learn about the different cultures there. The daemon system is developed more thoroughly here too, with additional information being given about how separation between humans and daemons works and how the relationships between these groups don't always function the way they are meant to. Pullman's world building continues to be exceptional, and I definitely felt transported away to another place while reading.
The characters were similarly well developed across the story, with the new characters being intriguing and the old characters revealing new sides of themselves. As this novel jumps forward quite far in time from the first book in the series, everyone is much older and views the world differently now. It was interesting to be able to compare the personalities of the characters across the intervening years. There were some characters that grew in strength and became better versions of themselves, like Malcolm and Alice, for example, and some characters that felt diminished, like Lyra and Pan. While I didn't always love everyone's personality or choices, there were no parts of their development that I would judge to be unrealistic. For example, I was disappointed that Lyra had grown to be so practical and gloomy, but I also realize that this is a logical outcome for her character. Anyone who had been through the struggles she had at the end of her adventure in The Amber Spyglass would probably go to a melancholy place readjusting to normal life. This humanizes her, although I do hope that her growth will continue into the third book and she will gain a little bit of her magic back.
In general, the plot of the novel was interesting and engaging, but it did feel a bit slow in parts. As I mentioned before, there is a cliffhanger ending here and almost no resolution to any of the storylines. Pullman is obviously gearing up for an action-packed second half to this story, and hopefully I will feel like all of this buildup will be worth it in the end. One small issue I had while reading was trying to remember all the characters and place names. There was a lot going on at once, and it was difficult to keep everything straight in my mind. As the last book in the series is almost certainly years away, I will have to reread this before diving into the conclusion. I already am having trouble remembering all the details, so there is no hope that I will be ready to read the new one without revisiting this.
As usual, I can't write a review without discussing some of the things that I didn't think worked well in the novel. There were definitely a few elements throughout the story that I was uncomfortable with. It pains me to say it, since I love this world and these characters so much, but there was some creepy sexual stuff going on that I didn't like. One of these elements was Malcolm's growing romantic interest in Lyra. He is ten years older than her and first met her when she was a baby. He was her teacher for a brief time when she was a young teenager too. While ten years isn't that uncommon of an age gap between romantic partners, these particular characters' past interactions all involve Malcolm taking on a parental or authoritative-type role with Lyra, which makes the idea of a romance between them distasteful to me. Throughout the story, Lyra starts to feel a growing attachment to him as well, so I'm pretty certain that this relationship is a thing that will happen. This will probably form a large part of the final book, so that's disappointing to me because I find it unsettling.
There is another moment in the novel when Lyra is sexually assaulted on a train by a group of soldiers. She fights back and is terribly injured. I dislike seeing sexual violence used as a plot device in general, but in a series for young adults, in which we have followed a character since infancy, this felt too brutal. At this point in the story, Lyra was already in danger, already suffering, already alone. This was gratuitous and unnecessary.
I have to mention another odd sexual moment, less serious than the rest, that irked me. At one point, Alice is called into an obviously ominous meeting with some Magisterium officials. Pullman describes her entrance into the room like this:
She sat down in the third chair in front of the desk, between the two strangers. Alice was slim, she could move with great elegance, she was not beautiful--she would never be that, nor pretty, nor conventionally attractive--but she could embody an intense sexuality...She let it show now, just to disconcert them.Ah yes, the old "switch on my intense sexuality at will" trick to make people uncomfortable. A club every woman has in their bag, right?
Only a man would think to describe a woman in this way.
These moments didn't stop me from enjoying the novel as a whole though, and I am still a big fan of this series. I can forgive some less than ideal moments. The Secret Commonwealth just released about a month or so ago, so the final installment in the trilogy is very far away. I'm still not clear on what the ultimate themes of the story will be, or how the characters will end up. What I do know is that this novel was engaging enough for me to be excited to find out.
Finally in 2019: 47/6 Books Read - Complete!
Total Books Read in 2019: 75