The Secret Commonwealth (2019) by Philip Pullman

Remember Lyra and Pantalaimon?

I read and enjoyed Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy back when they were first published just over twenty years ago. I’ve wanted to re-read them for a while, but I haven’t got around to it yet. I bought The Book of Dust Vol.1: La Belle Sauvage when it came out in October 2017. I enjoyed it overall, but felt that something was lacking. Perhaps it was the lack of familiar characters, as Lyra is just a baby in that story which is set chronologically before the His Dark Materials trilogy. But there were moments of magic in there; enough to make me want to read the next volume of the Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (2019).

Publisher’s Synopsis

‘The second volume of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.

Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.’

My Thoughts

If you have read any of the books of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, you will be familiar with the concept of “dæmons.” They are the physical manifestation of a person’s “inner being” or soul, and take the form of a creature such as an animal, bird or insect. They can change their form until a child reaches the end of puberty. Then, they settle on a permanent form which is said to reflect the person’s personality. Dæmons act as a lifelong companion to their humans and communicate with them via human speech. They also help and comfort their human. The relationship between Lyra and her dæmon “Pantalaimon” was one of the most important themes of the original books.

In The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra and Pantalaimon are back as the central characters. Malcom, the 11-year-old protagonist from The Book of Dust Vol.1: La Belle Sauvage, returns too. He is now a college professor in his early thirties, while Lyra has grown into a young woman still resident at Jordan College, Oxford. She is a student at the college and is studying the “alethiometer,” a mysterious compass-like device that acts as a kind of truth-seeking instrument. (It features prominently in the original trilogy.)

An alethiometer

As the book opens, Lyra and Pantalaimon’s relationship is strained. They argue frequently, with Pantalaimon accusing Lyra of having become too intellectual and rational. This is quite jarring to read after how close they were in the earlier books, but it goes on to become a crucial theme of the story. They have come so far together, survived so much in the past that it’s obvious how much they both need each other. Surely Pullman wouldn’t try to split them up, would he?..

“You’re in a world full of color and you want to see it in black and white.”

-Philip Pullman

It should be noted that The Secret Commonwealth is a more mature book than the original trilogy. Lyra has grown up, and this is reflected in some of the themes and content of this story. Pullman explores themes including religious extremism, sexual awakening, the refugee crisis, as well as the power of faceless multinational corporations. He also continues his deeper theme of the imagination versus rationality, and it is clear on which side Pullman’s sympathies lie.

I found The Secret Commonwealth a much more exciting read than the previous book La Belle Sauvage. The plot moves along at a faster pace and Pullman enjoys taking the reader on a series of journeys that move deeper and deeper into his world. The world-building is fascinating, and some of the new characters the author brings into the narrative are very memorable. It is an exciting and emotional story filled with moments of high imagination by Pullman. I highly recommend the audiobook narrated by Michael Sheen. He does a fantastic job with the different character’s voices.

Thanks for reading!

The Book of Dust Vol.1: La Belle Sauvage

19 thoughts on “The Secret Commonwealth (2019) by Philip Pullman

  1. I thought the first trilogy started off well, but third one was dreadful – bad enough that I lost interest in finishing it before I was very far in. I did then read the one about Jesus being the wrong person….but I’m not keen on carrying on with him.

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  2. We started watching the show on HBO Max a bit ago. I was skeptical at first . . . But once I got into the feel of the show, it’s quite nice. I had no idea it was a series of books. Wowsers. Nice post Wakizashi.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you S.D.! I haven’t watched the series yet. There is a film adaptation of the first book starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. I prefer the books but the film is pretty good. It wasn’t a hit, though, so they didn’t make any more. I’m curious about the tv series now. 😀

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  3. I only heard of Pullman when the previews started circulating for the movie, so I don’t know much about the series. The previews seemed interesting and I’ve been tempted to try the movie at some point. I don’t think I had a book series that grew as I grew, starting for a younger crowd and progressivingly getting more mature, but I have to imagine it’s kind of cool continuing to immerse yourself in this sort of world that grows with you. Looking back I guess there are some authors I started reading when younger who continued writing in the same world, but I’ve yet to continue the journey. Shannara is the most obvious example I can think of, only having read the first 3 books when much younger but nothing since, though I’ve been tempted to. Perhaps I’ll do that in the coming year.

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    • I think the original trilogy of books got more interesting as they progressed. But they certainly read like YA stories. The newer books tackle more mature subjects, but the sense of wonder is still in place:-)


  4. I must say that I wasn’t bowled over The Golden Compass – I read that and nothing more, finding the story largely uninteresting and the writing clunky. But this second trilogy (especially The Book of Dust) garners a lot of praise, so I might return to Pullman at some point! You certainly make a convincing case, Wakizashi!

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    • It was interesting looking at the reaction to this book on Goodreads. Some readers loved it, but many fans of the original trilogy didn’t. They complained about the changes Pullman made to Lyra’s character. She was only 12 years old at the start of ‘Northern Lights’–the original title of ‘The Golden Compass’–and is 20 in this book. Of course there would be changes. I think Pullman made those changes a big part of the story. Lyra has become a bit lost, and needs to rediscover the person she was. But I’m waffling.

      I want to re-read the second book of the original trilogy: ‘The Subtle Knife’, as I remember it being very different to the first one; darker and a lot more interesting. But it was a long time ago when I read it…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I’m afraid that willing or not, I’ll have to start at the very beginning to properly appreciate the second trilogy 😉 Not to worry, though – I’ll try to fit it in at some point! 😀

        Btw, the varied GR readers’ reactions are totally not surprising to me since you say that the second trilogy is much more mature and tackles some darker topics – some people just like more of the same, and some want to see and embrace change 😉

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  5. Pingback: Top Reads of 2020 | Who's Dreaming Who

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