Lyra reveres reason above all else, numbly observing that the very stars seem dead ‘…a vast silent empty indifference, all quite meaningless.’ Can this be the feisty heroine we remember from His Dark Materials, the girl with witch oil in her soul?The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman builds on the legendary multiverse of the previous novels, and joins Lyra as an Oxford undergraduate. An ineptly executed murder triggers a tale that will encompass a great journey, monumental secrets, and jeopardy too, as the shadowy powers-that-be resume their historic pursuit of young Lyra Silvertongue.
Lyra and her daemon, Pan, lead a scholarly Oxford life, their outwardly unassuming aspect concealing cracks in one of fiction’s most enduring partnerships. Lyra is flirting with rational philosophy and adopting a scepticism that cuts Pan to the quick.
‘You’re in a world full of colour and you want to see it in black and white.’
When Pan accidentally witnesses the murder of a research botanist, they are drawn into a mystery that will stretch across continents to the great deserts of Central Asia. But their quests will be separate, a development to shock diehard His Dark Materials fans, who will know that a daemon is the physical embodiment of a person’s soul. They should not be parted. But part they do when Pan sets off alone, to find Lyra’s ‘imagination’. Someone has stolen it and he intends to get it back.
To me, this hefty tome feels like a middle novel, the stage being set for a lip smacking finale. I enjoyed Pullman’s continued incisive skewering of institutional power but missed the bewitchery of the earlier novels. Could Lyra really rationalise away her previous metaphysical adventures? Well, this world is dark and ‘universal scepticism’ is fashionable. Lyra has grown older along with her readers.
A multilayered and challenging read from one of our greatest writers but I’m hopeful that the best is yet to come.
The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman is published by Penguin and David Fickling Books, 704 pages.
Why not read the first book in The Book of Dust series, La Belle Sauvage?