It’s been a couple weeks now since I finished reading (devouring) The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman, the second book in his Book of Dust series, a follow-up to His Dark Materials (aka, my favorite series of all-time). And I’m still trying to wrap my ahead around everything that happened in the book, and the myriad of emotions it stirred up within me.
Set ten years after the events of His Dark Materials, THE SECRET COMMONWEALTH continues the story of Lyra Silvertongue, called “one of fantasy’s most indelible heroines” by The New York Times Magazine. Lyra’s adventures in the North are long over—the windows between the many worlds have been sealed, and her beloved Will is lost to her. She does still have the alethiometer: the truth-telling device given to her by the master of Jordan College, which guided her journey.
Lyra doesn’t know the full story of the alethiometer, though. Or the role that young Malcolm Polstead played in bringing both the instrument and baby Lyra to Jordan. She’s now a twenty-year-old undergraduate at St. Sophia’s College. To her, Malcolm is Dr. Polstead, an overly solicitous professor she would prefer to avoid.
But intrigue is swirling around Lyra. Her dæmon, Pantalaimon, is witness to a brutal murder, and the dying man entrusts them with secrets that carry echoes of their past. They learn of a city haunted by dæmons, of a desert said to hold the secret of Dust. Powerful forces are about to throw Lyra and Malcolm together again. And the dangers they face will challenge everything they thought they knew about the world, and about themselves.
The Secret Commonwealth is easily my most-anticipated book this year, and it did not disappoint. It was such a delight to be back in Lyra’s world, and what a treat to see her now as a young woman, as an adult, figuring out her place in the world. She’s 20-years-old and finishing up university, and not quite sure what to do with herself beyond that — and, well, who hasn’t felt that way when they transitioned from teenager to adult; from student to part of the working world. But on top of that, in many ways, Lyra is still experiencing the consequences of what took place all those years ago during the events of His Dark Materials. Her journey north, and her discovery of other worlds. Her meeting — and parting — from Will Parry. And perhaps most significantly, having separated from her beloved daemon Pantalaimon to journey into the world of the dead.
You see, Lyra and Pan aren’t in a good place when we meet up with them in The Secret Commonwealth; in fact, they rather can’t stand each other. And as a long-time reader of this series, it’s heartbreaking to behold. But this fracture in their being (because really, they are part of the same whole) is a large part of what sets in motion the events of The Secret Commonwealth. Political and religious unrest are stirring once again in Lyra’s world, and though her journey north and into other worlds has long since come to an end, her role in the changing landscape of her world is far from over.
Of course, this isn’t just Lyra’s story this time around. Readers first met Malcolm Polstead when he was just a boy, helping to ferry the baby Lyra to safety. When the book opens, he’s little more to Lyra than that awkward professor she was somewhat cruel to several years prior. But then she learns of their past connection and starts to think of Malcolm as a friend; maybe more. The two have more in common than they realize at first, and though they are soon separated by their own journeys, neither is far from the other’s mind for very long and their time together is far from over.
The Secret Commonwealth stirred up a myriad of emotions in me, and though I don’t easily cry over books or movies, I shed tears quite a few times while reading this book. The things that these characters go through — Lyra, Pan, Malcolm, and others; even the memory of Will — it all stirs up so much! I remember the agony, years ago, of waiting and waiting and waiting for the publication of The Amber Spyglass — and I hope the wait for The Book of Dust #3 isn’t as long, because I’d like to start reading it yesterday.
I was 11-years-old when my dad bought me a copy of The Golden Compass, and in the 25-years since, I’ve reread that book (and the rest of the series) countless times. These books changed and shaped my life in so many ways, and will forever hold a special place in my heart. So to revisit this world and these characters in The Book of Dust and The Secret Commonwealth is truly a remarkable gift. I am once again wonderstruck by Pullman’s storytelling and the magic he weaves with his words. The scope of this story and the events that are unfolding are absolutely incredible, and I will be waiting with bated breath to see how events conclude in the next book.
The Secret Commonwealth is available now.
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