Review: The Secret Commonwealth by Phillip Pullman (Spoilers)

‘You won’t understand anything about the imagination until you realise that it’s not about making things up, it’s about perception.’

****Trigger warnings for rape, mentions of abuse and physical assault. This review will also contain spoilers for His Dark Materials, La Belle Sauvage and this book.****

Noone is more disappointed than I to be giving this book a negative review. I honestly think the rating I gave is down to Michael Sheen’s narration alone, for being back in this world and seeing Lyra and Malcolm again. Pullman has taken this series down a very dark road which does nothing for the world and strikes me as a gamble that won’t payoff. This is gonna be a hard review fellow readers.

It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child.

The second volume of Sir 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.

So to keep some kind of coherence to this review, let me just break down the main reasons I had so many problems with it. As a quick summary, I thought the plot was very weak and used unnecessary moments of trauma to move it forward. The characters on a whole are totally nothing like themselves from previous books for one and for series named ‘The Book of Dust’, we still know nothing new about Dust. Be warned, the spoilers are about to begin.

Lyra and Pan were always going to have conflict and trauma to explore after the results of what happened in The Amber Spyglass. Daemons and humans separating isn’t a common practice and takes a great deal of pain to manage the process and survive it. However, this goes way beyond everything that was already established for both. Pan is convinced that Lyra has lost her “imaginations” somehow and leaves her later on to go find it. This only really functioned as plot device but it was a bit of a slap to the face to anyone who loved these characters to begin with.

Malcolm is a welcome return I will admit, as well as Alice who is the best damn thing in this entire mess. But I do have to question the decision to have Malcolm fall in love with Lyra? It’s an uncomfortable experience to read to be honest, especially since the last book made it very clear that Malcolm has been in her life since she was a baby. Alice though, is truly the best. As well, the Gyptian people are the best family Lyra could have.

****Trigger Warning, the rest of the review will be discussing an attempted rape scene.****

I need to talk about the fact that after 4 books, Pullman has decided the next thing that was going to happen to Lyra, was assault and attempted gang rape. This is the most unnecessary scene I have ever read. For a start, there is no warning for this so this is very triggering material. It’s also lazy writing and serves no function only to alienate readers further. I’m left to wonder since Lyra is ‘no longer a child’ and other plot details I will get to are meant to be the thing that distinguish this series ‘adult’. The one thing that His Dark Materials always managed to do was appeal to adults and children both. Regardless of both, this sucks and I hated it.

The only thing I will say that saved me from leaving this as one star was the amazing narration from Michael Sheen once again. I would kill for an audio book of him narrating either a Discworld novel or a new Good Omens with him and Tennant. Every single character has a distinct voice, accent AND personality and this is all while he manages to maintain the tension of the plot where necessary. There is not a moment I didn’t know who was talking (both human and daemon) and I that is a testament to the narrators skill.

Again, the plot is a bit of a mess. Like I get that in the issue with rose oil, and the people being uprooted from their lands is meant to make some message about the refugee crisis but it never really gets to there it’s supposed to. Not only that but I really don’t get why the events from His Dark Materials are being discussed like they happened 30 years ago. From the end of The Amber Spyglass, I was willing to believe that the Magesterium would now lose some of their hold and things would change for the better. However if anything, this story shows how they are just creeping further and further into the network of society to suffocate anything that is not part of it’s regime. All this culminates in an ending that is just a massive cliff hanger with no answers and leaves you no option but to finish this series with the last book.

I also just want to repeat my comment at the stat, for a book series dedicated to Dust, we don’t see very much of it. Same can be said of the Secret Commonwealth. There is not much in the way of discussing where this book will stand in both these titles or how they will add to the world here.

Again, this was a hard review to write. I had initially rated this 3 stars but there is no need for the third one. I will finish this series since I have come this far but I don’t deny that the bad taste in my mouth. I might just pretend that the original series and La Belle Sauvage are all that exist in this world. I miss Will. If you read all this, thank you so much and I can only with you happier reading this week.

★★/5

The Book of Dust: Volume One La Belle Sauvage- Philip Pullman Review

Words belong in contexts, not pegged out like biological specimens. ‘

I think you all know by now, whether it is from my blog, twitter or you got stuck talking to me at a party, His Dark Materials is one of my favourite series of all time. I did a full series review, a reread that took me only a week to do and I have not shut up about the new series on BBC/HBO. This book continues Lyra’s journey as well as my own.

Malcolm Polstead lives in Oxford with his daemon, Asta, and his boat, La Belle Sauvage. With his natural curiosity, it seemed only natural he would become a spy. Malcom sees secrets everywhere he goes, strange men meeting in his parent’s inn, mentions of Lord Asriel and his crimes, the mysterious Magesterium and then, an intercepted message about Dust. Then a baby called Lyra is delivered to the care of the local priory and suddenly things have gotten a lot more dangerous.

This book utterly blew me away. I know I’m slightly biased when I say this but this is a perfectly laid out world that is well built and easy to step into. I listened to this on audio with the fabulous Michael Sheen narrating the book and I would highly recommend reading the book this way.

As I already mentioned it is a seamless transition back into the world of daemons, the Magesterium and alternative Oxford. We get to see nothing pretty much of Jordan College but a more mundane, everyday version of this Oxford and it is a pleasure to experience. People are working, children attend school, people are going to the pub in the evening and it all felt so real, aided by the fantastic voices from Sheen.

Old characters return such as Asriel, Coulter, Coram and obviously Lyra but I truly fell in love with our new cast. Malcolm is a sweet bean that needs to be protected at all costs. He is a child close to the age that Lyra is during Northern Lights and I think Pullman does that well, characters that learn with the readers. His development is honestly one of the best written arc’s I’ve read this year. Alice also gets a standout mention from me because I wish that when I was her age I had that sass and attitude. She also has some wonderful character development but she is a treat for anyone who wished they had more spine when they were a child.

We get the usual villains of the Magesterium but there is an antagonist in this story that is genuinely horrifying. He doesn’t really become a threat until at least halfway through the story but when he arrives he is like that bad feeling you get that just won’t go away. You know at any moment he could just appear and cause so much horror.

Pullman paces this story in a very similar way to The Amber Spyglass in a way that it never ceases to keep the reader moving along with events and crises. Unlike the first 2 books in His Dark Materials we get no slow moments in a particular place to gather our thoughts. This book is not waiting for you, you have to figure it out and keep up or you will get left behind.

One of the great advantages of the audio version is how well Sheen can change the plot pacing with his voice alone. Like there were moments where I was STRESSING hard for my poor baby Malcolm and Asta and just wanted it over. It’s so good since you will actually forget it was one narrator and not many.

I intend to follow up with The Secret Commonwealth since I bought it so recently but with some other projects and stuff it may have to wait until January. Also I am watching the TV show and I do love it so far. (Bonus easter eggs in it for people who read this). Are you watching it without having read the books or after reading them? Do let me know!

★★★★★/5

His Dark Materials-Philip Pullman: Overall Series Review

‘What is worth having is worth working for. But you have a friend who has already taken the first steps, and who could help you.’

Good evening all! My apologies for my absence and delay in getting back to you all. In case any of you don’t follow me on Twitter you might not know that I went to Octocon the weekend just gone. I’ll have a post about it later this week. Now to the review, this is actually a full series reread but I feel the burning need to discuss the books.

In case you somehow haven’t heard of it His Dark Materials follows Lyra Belacqua who lives in Jordan College, Oxford in a world very similar to our own. In Lyra’s world people have animal companions known as daemons who are a manifestation of their true selves.When Lyra spies on a meeting between Lord Asriel and the professors of Jordan College discussing something called Dust she discovers that her world is not the only one and that something sinister is affecting the children of Oxford.

So what triggered this entire series reread was the trailer for the new series from BBC and HBO. Holy shit. This looks good. So I binge read the entire thing. I honestly think I enjoyed it more as a complete work instead of 3 separate novels. I do however have star ratings for all 3 books:

  • The Northern Lights- ★★★★/5
  • The Subtle Knife- ★★★.5/5
  • The Amber Spyglass- ★★★★★/5

The world that Pullman has created within this series is some of the best I have ever read. Lyra’s world is very similar to ours with the exception of daemons. Her world also has a church body that domineers society that is called the Magesterium. This is a very clear representation of the Christian church, specifically the Catholic Church. As the series progresses we then get to travel to other parallel worlds, one of which is our own world but nothing is quite as rich as the world Lyra lives in.

In Lyra’s world alone there are daemons, witches and armoured polar bears who have their own structured societies, angels as well as physics, travelling via zeppelins and instruments such as the alethiomiter (a truth telling device that looks like a watch that Lyra has a talent reading). The world itself is very similar to the Victorian England but it’s so wonderful. We do see other worlds, especially in the last book but Lyra’s is my favourite.

Lyra is a wonderful main character, she is sassy and a gifted liar which leads her into many dangerous situations and yet saves her in many more. Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon are the main points of view but we do get to see the story from other POV’s. One of those is Will Parry who we meet in the second book, The Subtle Knife. Will is from our world and cares for his mum who suffers from an undiagnosed mental illness before he meets Lyra in another world esaping from his through a rip in reality. Will is definitely my favourite next to Lyra. Where Lyra is good with words and manipulation, Will is more of a physical character. He will stand out to people and speak up when he feels he is being attacked and can make himself as unimportant when he needs to to just blend into the background. Will and Lyra are a great pair on the page but I don’t necessarily agree with how their arc ended in the final book.

We have to talk about the villains. The Magesterium are the ultimate villains of the plot but Mrs Coulter is the first true foe we meet. She is first introduced to Lyra at the beginning of book one and adopts her. We then learn how dangerous she is and her ties with the church very early on but she is a character that will always have you second guessing. Her daemon is a golden monkey who is just as sinister as her. I loved every second she was on the page and her arc is genuinely one of the best developed of the story.

The plot does have its moments where it can stall within the story. As I said I enjoyed this a lot more this time as one full work of fantasy as opposed to 3 separate novels. Pullman does a fantastic job of weaving all these ongoing stories and characters across a multiverse. There is also some fantastic moments where the plot mirrors biblical stories such as Adam and Eve, the Fall from Heaven and many more but every now and then the plot would just halt and there would be a lot of travelling on a boat or zeppelin, or someone gathering materials. This is mostly in the first book and moments of the third but they don’t take away from the conclusion of the story or the more climactic moments.

The last book is the best of the trilogy in my opinion because we have the full cast of characters, the different worlds but also because the conclusion is perfect. Pullman has since continued the series with The Book of Dust. There are also shorter stories such as Lyras Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North that further enrich the whole series. I do love hyper world building and supplementary books but I honestly think that the original trilogy is perfect on its own.

The TV adaptation begins on the 5th of November, I’ll definitely be watching even just for the casting alone. There is a film called The Golden Compass that is an adaptation of The Northern Lights. It’s not so terrible since the special effects are good but the conclusion of the film and the casting of Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter are not my cup of tea. Definitely watch it though for even an idea of the vast world.

As per usual I would like to recommend this to both young and older readers. Pullman had no audience in mind while writing it but it is generally marketed to young adults. The audio books are also a quick version of the books with a full cast, be warned a lot of story does get lost. Also a must read for fans of Pratchett, C.S Lewis, Ursula K Le Guin and Garth Nix.