In One Word

In One Word, The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman is…

secret commonwealth

  • Published in 2019 by Penguin and David Fickling Books
  • Format: Paperback – Published in 2020 by Penguin and David Fickling Books
  • Reading Time: 17 low-key days


  • Left my second February Pretty Mess Reading book a bit late. The prompt was ‘borrowed from a friend’ but options for borrowing stuff from friends are pretty limited at the moment so I opted for borrowing from family instead. This is one I’ve been meaning to read for a while anyway since I loved His Dark Materials. This takes place seven years after the events of the Amber Spyglass and twenty years after the events of La Belle Sauvage. Lyra is now a twenty year old student at Oxford and her and her daemon, Pantalaimon, are growing apart over new ideas about daemons. Meanwhile, the Magisterium is causing trouble and, in particular, Marcel Delaware is pulling as many strings as he can to get to Lyra. Lyra has no choice but to flee again and seek help from the one who saved her from a flood as a baby: Malcolm Polstead. Once again, she is pulled into a strange and dangerous world and has to use her wits to come out in one piece.
  • Entertaining more of a spy-thriller kind of story as the characters bounce around the world, each after their own goals and trying to stay out of trouble. Clues about what’s going on are scattered all around the book and they will probably become more obvious on a re-read. What is clear is that the issue of Dust has popped up again and the Magisterium are, yet again, looking for ways to stamp it out and regain their hold of the world. I think the Magisterium are a much more intimidating presence in this book. We get a much better look at what their agents are willing to go to gain power and how corrupt the higher-ups are.
  • Not the Lyra we know and love. She’s fallen prey to fashionable philosophies on daemons without really thinking about their implications and has grown apart from Pan. She’s also lost her knack of talking her way out of trouble and for getting angry when something is clearly unfair. Most astonishingly, she’s turned her back on the magical parts of the world and even tries to rationalise them to no effect. She even tries to rationalise the events of the previous trilogy in a way that feels like a betrayal. Pan is right: Lyra has lost some vital part of herself and it’s hard to find the fierce girl from the original series in her. She doesn’t even have much of a goal beyond a vague idea or much agency. She just seems to be drifting from one lead to the next without much idea of what she’ll do when she reaches her goal. As a result, it’s rather hard to root for her until she starts showing a bit of her old self. Pan is a bit easier to root for. In some ways, he embodies some of the old Lyra and he’s a much more likeable character for it. The other characters, such as Malcolm and Alice, all had their moments too but I do think I liked Pan the best.
  • Goes on for far too long and included too many alternative POVs. I felt that, if it had only been Lyra’s story with some of Pan’s adventures, I would have fared much better. Malcolm had some decent adventures but it still felt like window dressing. POV changes are fine in moderation as a diversion from the main POV is sometimes needed to show a major event in the storyline (no spoilers but it was pretty shocking). The POV changes would have even been fine if the book had been the same length as the previous trilogy. That level of POV changing in a book without over 700 pages, however, made an already over-long story harder to follow. The story was also very low on action compared to the previous books too or, at least, it feels that way because it’s the longest of the series yet. There’s a lot more introspection on Lyra’s part as she tries to make sense of the world and confront where she might have gone wrong. The book is still very readable despite that but I felt that it could have been tightened if the focus had been on Lyra alone.
  • The inclusion of refugees and showing us how terribly the world treats them adds a heartbreakingly relevant note. As Lyra goes further beyond Oxford than she ever has, we also see more of her world. We also learn how people without daemons are treated. It seems that people without daemons are, in fact, not unheard of but they are almost universally feared and reviled as ‘incomplete’ people. The reader also learns more of the various ways a daemon can separate from their humans. I won’t say any more here as I don’t want to go into spoiler territory but it is rather surprising and some parts are utterly horrifying.
  • Helped by a great full-page illustration in every chapter. I like the woodcut-like style and I think it fits the world rather well.
  • You will probably be as annoyed as me that the book ended in that way. After 700 pages, to have such an unsatisfying ending feels very unwelcome. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I only gave the book three stars. I feel bad for giving a book about a world I love so much such a low rating but I just can’t say I had much fun reading it. It really feels like the most elongated example of middle-book syndrome where hardly anything was resolved, it doesn’t stand up on its own and it just feels like it’s setting up for the finale.

Goodreads Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Did you agree with my rating? Can you think of a better word to describe it? Please let me know with a like, share or comment.

4 thoughts on “In One Word, The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman is…”

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