Saturday 12 October 2019

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman         
It is always with some trepidation that you approach the new books of your favourite authors. There is a sense of nervous anticipation as you open the covers. Will it be as good as the others? Will it take you to new ground? I’m happy to report that I was transported to Lyra’s world and very pleased to be back in it, so engaged with her world in The Secret Commonwealth that it proved difficult to go to work or sleep. The second 'Book of Dust' takes us twenty years on from La Belle Sauvage. Lyra Silvertongue is now a young woman completing her university studies, and her life is taking a turn for the worse: her daemon Pantalaimon is angry with her, and when Pan sees a murder committed while out walking alone at night (if you know the world of Lyra, you will know that it is not normal for people to be separated from their daemons), the seemingly safe environs of Oxford and the colleges begins to unravel at an alarming rate. Danger is pursuing Lyra — someone wants her controlled, wants something from her and not in a nice way. Escaping Oxford, which is no longer a safe haven (the new master is not sympathetic to this orphan), she finds shelter with Malcolm Polstad’s family. Finally learning about her rescue in The Great Flood by the then 11-year-old Malcolm, she is both astonished by her childhood history and angry that so many secrets have been kept from her. Yet this is a different Lyra than her eleven-year-old self of Northern Lights. While still determined, there are also the more adult emotions of doubt and fear holding her back. She is questioning her beliefs, her understanding of herself and the people around her. Quarrelling one evening with Pan, he accuses her of losing her imagination — something she scoffs at and dismisses. Pan’s frustration is palpable — they are both saddened by their ability to separate physically and this has left a gaping psychological gulf that neither Lyra nor Pan can overcome. When Pan leaves her to seek answers — to find Lyra’s ‘imagination’, Lyra begins her own journey to the East. It is dangerous for her in Brytan and she needs to flee — but where can she go? Her first step is to old friends, the Gyptains, and here we meet again some of the characters from those first books in the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. Pullman deftly pulls in the threads of Lyra's childhood and weaves in her new quests. The story-telling is as always exceptional. She must find Pan; she needs to go East. What is so special about a rose that is grown in the desert and why does the Magisterium want it so badly? Scientists and theologians alike are determined to uncover something about this material, and there seems to be a link to Dust. We follow the journeys of Pan, Lyra and Malcolm on their separate trajectories to the east: Pan in search of what is wrong at the heart of his relationship with Lyra; Lyra seeking Pan, the reason for the brutal murder and the mysteries of the invisible worlds; and Malcolm to find Lyra and, as a member of the secret organisation Oakley Street, to find out what the Magisterium is up to. Across the world, both east and west, the Magisterium has become stronger and more powerful. We see a more dictatorial state and one where political and economic machinations are affecting people adversely. There is less autonomy, a crackdown on debate and dissent, people are displaced, and inequality is on the rise, with a small elite in charge with the backing of military and police. The Secret Commonwealth is more compelling than the first in 'The Book of Dust' series but is also darker, more violent and challenging. I am awaiting with greater anticipation the third in this trilogy! If you haven’t read any of the 'Lyra' books you need to start at the beginning with Northern Lights.   

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