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).
‘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.’
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.)
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!