The Secret Commonwealth Review
From the outset we get the sense that things have changed from the events of His Dark Materials as we dive back into Pullman’s world with The Secret Commonwealth.
Beware for spoilers ahead!
“It used to be you who was impulsive,” said Pan, “and me who held you back. We’re different now.”
[Lyra] nodded, “Well, you know, things change…”
Lyra and Pan
Lyra’s at the centre of this story, she’s the witty, tough, cunning character we remember from His Dark Materials but she’s now twenty and suffering the fallout from her past adventures. She’s “melancholy” as Pullman puts it, which we can infer is depression. This isn’t surprising you can hardly escape the hero’s journey, and Lyra’s in particular as the new Eve, without feeling anxious and depressed, especially after losing her first love Will.
Pullman artfully stripes everything from Lyra that is secure and familiar as she’s flung into The Secret Commonwealth’s new adventure, with plotting evil uncles and the looming threat of a new sect of the Magisterium. The sanctuary of Jordan College and even Pantalaimon himself is taken away from Lyra.
Pantalaimon is physical repression of Lyra’s own soul in the form of a pine marten. So, naturally, as Lyra doesn’t like herself, her relationship with Pan is strained. It’s painful to read of the growing rift between these characters who we love, and loved each other so much in The Dark Materials. But this results in Pan and Lyra going their separate ways on this adventure.
I know a big question I had entering into this book was “Where’s Will?” and Pullman doesn’t hesitate to tease us.
Will appears throughout the novel in Lyra’s thoughts and his daemon, Kirjava, appears in Lyra’s dreams. Is this foreshadowing to him appearing in the next book? Or is it the key to helping Lyra’s depression? Will she move past that young, powerful, impossible love, and will she have a relationship with Malcolm? Parallels are drawn between the two, they both committed murder as boys and both have cat daemons.
I’m not sold on the relationship between Lyra and Malcolm. There’s an age difference of ten years between them, but more importantly, Malcolm knew and cared for Lyra as a baby. In La Belle Sauvage Malcolm’s love for Lyra was brotherly and deeply endearing.
It’s suddenly made uncomfortable when it’s revealed that Malcolm has always loved Lyra, even when she was his student at sixteen, which leaves me feeling uneasy with this relationship.
Personally, I’m hoping Will will make a surprise comeback in the next book, as impossible as that might be.
The other thing I didn’t like in this book is the attempted gang rape scene with Lyra in the train towards the end of the book. I felt this was deeply unnecessary.
It feels like that now she’s a woman, Lyra needs this manufactured tragedy folded into her character arc. Unfortunately, it’s a commonplace trope that Pullman disappointingly has adhered to inject tension into the plot.
Overall, I loved this book as I always do love coming back to Lyra’s world. I’ve been in love with this world since I was a child, reading about daemons, anbaric lights and zeppelins. But I’ve grown up and so has Lyra, and the story explores the tricky awkward place of trying to find yourself as a young adult. The fact that The Secret Commonwealth ends on a cliff-hanger makes me all the more desperate for the next instalment.
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