Reviewed by Chris Maher
The new series from the author of the bestselling His Dark Materials continues in The Secret Commonwealth.
For young adults, breaking up with a lover who seems to know your inner thoughts is a heart-wrenching experience. How painful then to break up with your actual innermost self, as heroine Lyra Silvertongue and her daemon Pantalaimon do in the latest instalment from Philip Pullman.
The ancients as far back as Plotinus wrote about an individual’s daemon. A companion to our mortal lower self, the daemon is an immortal higher self, or soul. Some gnostics believed that in the right circumstances the daemon can be visible as a twin who acts like a guardian angel or a spirit guide.
In Pullman’s trilogies His Dark Materials and the related The Book of Dust, a person’s daemon exists outside the body in the form of an animal. However, daemons can also learn things independently and some people have the ability to separate from them, witches in particular, as did Lyra, as a consequence of her journey to the world of the dead in the final book of His Dark Materials, The Amber Spyglass.
The central drama in The Northern Lights, the first book in His Dark Materials trilogy, concerned the efforts of the Magisterium – a ruthless, all-powerful church – to separate daemons from children, and thereby attempt to make them ‘pure’.
In The Secret Commonwealth – the second instalment of The Book of Dust trilogy, following the ‘prequel’ La Belle Sauvage – separation also drives the drama. But this time it is individual daemons and humans choosing to separate – to their mutual misery. And it is into this tragic circumstance that Lyra and her daemon Pan fall. They have come to hate each other, and after a final argument Pan leaves. He says Lyra has had her imagination stolen, and he begins a quest to find it. Devastated, she in turn searches for him.
The sense of loss builds slowly, and as circumstances become more and more desperate, they both wonder how one being can hate itself so much it becomes two.
Lyra is a young woman now, and her sufferings are traumatic and include a sexual assault –parts of this book are quite distressing, and may not suit younger readers.
As Lyra’s miserable situation reaches its lowest point she asks: ‘Oh Pan, are you satisfied now?’
The world Lyra traverses is similar to ours in that bearded zealots from the mountains, the Brotherhood of the Holy Purpose – fundamental Islamists in all but name – are driving people from the East, and trails of refugees are struggling and dying as they try to escape.
Lyra journeys in the opposite direction, towards the trouble, as she tries to find the mythical City of the Moon, inhabited only by separated daemons, in the hope of discovering answers – and Pan. The tension ratchets up considerably the closer Lyra gets to her goal, made all the worse by the fact that as a separated human she is despised, and as a foreign woman she is particularly vulnerable.
On top of all that, the Magisterium is after her, as is a man seeking revenge for the death of his father. But she does have some people on her side: the gyptians, Oakley Street agents, other separated humans, and Malcolm Polstead.
Malcolm was the boy who saved her as a baby in La Belle Sauvage. Now they are both adults. Although he is 11 years older, there are strong hints of romance – this despite the fact they are rarely together, in this book at least. He also journeys East, ostensibly on Oakley Street business to find the mysterious vision-inducing roses that grow there, but also to find Lyra.
Their adventures through exotic Eastern Europe and into Anatolia have the ring of pre-war intrigue, with spies, agents, refugees and terrorists around every corner; and of course, a bevy of fantastic characters comes to their aid or hinders their progress.
At the same time, political intrigue is afoot on a grander scale, with a coup taking place at the Magisterium. And it seems likely this is all, somehow, related to the rose gardens and the journeys our protagonists are undertaking.
Meanwhile, Pan tracks down the philosopher he accuses of stealing Lyra’s imagination through his book The Hyperchorasmians – Gottfried Brande:
… the narrative of The Hyperchorasmians treated with contempt the characters who were artistic, or who wrote poetry, or who wrote about ‘the spiritual’. Did Gottfried Brande mean that imagination itself was worthless?
Pullman has been described as a humanist, with the implication that he holds strictly to rational scientific arguments. However, he prefers to call himself a possibilian – an adherent of exploring unlimited new possibilities and, in the absence of overwhelming proof, holding multiple positions at once.
And so we come to the primary concept and the name of the novel – The Secret Commonwealth. Imagination and the ability to perceive a world full of possibilities are at the heart of this book.
As an old gyptian tells Lyra:
‘Young people don’t believe in the secret commonwealth. It’s all chemistry and measuring things as far as they’re concerned. They got an explanation for everything, and they’re all wrong.’
‘What’s the secret commonwealth?’
‘The world of fairies, and the ghosts, and the jacky lanterns.’
Later, as a guide explains to her what to expect in the City of the Moon:
‘There may be other things than daemons there.’
‘Phantoms. Ghosts of this kind or that. Emissaries of the Evil One.’
‘Do you believe that?’
‘Of course, it would be an intellectual failure to do anything else.’
‘There are philosophers who say that the failure would be to believe, not to disbelieve.’
‘Then excuse me, Miss Sliver, but they have separated their intelligences from their other faculties. And that is not an intelligent thing to do.’
Compared to His Dark Materials, The Secret Commonwealth initially appears less magical and more of a detective mystery. It is only once Lyra leaves Oxford that the other, secret world begins to rise, and also the darker side of the human world, creating a sense of foreboding leading into the final instalment.
In this book there are intriguing characters, but none as memorable as Iorek Byrnison, Lee Scoresby or even Mrs Coulter, and no-one to rival the wild majesty of the witches. And as Lyra’s imagination is gone, as well as her ability to read the alethiometer, she is unable to cleverly deceive her enemies, as she managed in the first series.
However, her struggle to survive with every limitation imaginable makes for a compelling story. And we can guess – and hope – that her powers will return for the final instalment.