Friday, November 8, 2019

Review of The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman’s 2017 La Belle Sauvage was unexpected. Pullman seeming to have closed out the universe of His Dark Materials with 2000’s The Amber Spyglass, a new novel, let alone the first in a trilogy, was a surprise. A wonderful bit of storytelling that didn’t ostensibly seem to fit into the known storyline, the resulting intrigue begged the question: what’s next? 2019’s The Secret Commonwealth is precisely that. On top of extending the top-notch storytelling, Pullman only magnifies the intrigue surrounding the world of Dust while extending Lyra’s tale in original, surprising fashion.

The Secret Commonwealth takes an interesting turn from La Belle Sauvage. Where the latter novel featured Lyra in infancy, the former opens years after the events of His Dark Materials, Lyra now in her early twenties. Still living at Jordan College, the young woman presses onward with backroom alethiometer studies. However, due to her experiences in The Subtle Knife, her relationship with Pantalaimon is stretched thin. Neither comfortable in the presence of the other, it takes a chance witness to a major crime by Pantalaimon in the marshes around the College to kick start new experiences for Lyra. Drawing in threads of story from both La Belle Sauvage and His Dark Materials, The Secret Commonwealth centers on Lyra’s homeworld and certain botanical knowledge that threatens to disrupt its entire scene.

Let’s skip to the chase, The Secret Commonwealth is a superb piece of storytelling. Pace, scene, point of view, diction—everything clicks in one, smooth engine, driving the tale through the land of enjoyment. It’s been years since I read His Dark Materials, and I would have to go back and read it, but instinct tells me that Pullman has only honed his technique closer to the bone of what makes for truly momentum-generating story. No book in the world is unputdownable, but this one can make for late nights. Lyra’s new adventures are as imaginative as when she was twelve, but break new ground in fresh, exciting fashion.

Thematically, Pullman explores a couple of major topics. First is the absurdity of authoritarianism. The Magesterium his prime example, the practices and methods they use to gain and maintain power are quite intentionally paralleled to what is happening with populism and nationalism’s rise in the West today. Story takes the forefront, but Pullman’s points are not hidden. Secondly, I would argue something resembling feminism is another major theme. Lyra now a young woman, Pullman takes the route of developing her confidence and self-identity in representing the idea (that is, rather than representing her as a victim as many feminist narratives would have it). Not overly brave or foolish in her confidence, Lyra proves quick and decisive, all the while dealing with personal doubts about her evolving philosophies and relationship with Pantalaimon. Perhaps a bit heavy-handed, Pullman does include one attempted rape scene in an effort to drive home the book’s values, but overall it remains on rational, practical point.

If there is anything to complain about in The Secret Commonwealth (besides the rare bit of heavy-handed politicized scenes), it would have to be the ending. A major cliffhanger, it’s up to readers to read on and find out in the next, yet-unnamed volume. That book likely out in two-three years, it can’t come soon enough given the state of affairs upon the conclusion of this book. It’s impossible to be truly upset at Pullman, however. Let those two to three years pass, let the final book be published, and readers will likely entirely forget about the wait. Nevertheless, for now it’s frustrating—in a good way.

While I believe His Dark Materials to be the more imaginative, dynamic trilogy to this point, The Book of Dust is proving itself to be the more consistently delivered, technically pure, and deeper-moving series. With The Secret Commonwealth, Philip Pullman not only proves himself a master storyteller, but likewise capable of using the fantastical world he’s concocted as a medium for political commentary in a way that does not undermine the former (though on a couple of occasions does get heavy-handed). Highly recommended.

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