And Then I Read: THE SECRET COMMONWEALTH by Philip Pullman

Cover art © Chris Wormell

The first part of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, “The Book of Dust Volume One: La Belle Sauvage,” was the best book I read in 2017, and I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since. While not as thrilling as the first book, it did not disappoint.

Pullman began writing about the world and characters herein in 1995 with a prior trilogy with the overall title “His Dark Materials.” The first book, “The Golden Compass” in the U.S., “Northern Lights” elsewhere, introduced the character Lyra, a young girl living at a college in Oxford, essentially on her own, but cared for by the entire college staff. This was an Oxford in a parallel world with many differences, the most striking being that every person has a sort of animal familiar that is both a separate being and part of the person at the same time. In childhood, the companion is changeable, trying out different animal forms, eventually becoming settled on one by the time the person reaches adulthood. The companion animals often represent or echo the personalities of their humans in some way. They talk to and provide company for each human, but can also talk to other companion animals and humans. Their lives are closely tied to their humans, but also somewhat separate. Lyra’s companion, a marten named Pantalaimon, is an important part of the first trilogy, the plot of which includes people being separated from their companions with devastating results for both, and Lyra’s attempt to stop it. That takes Lyra to other parallel worlds, including one where she must separate herself from Pantalaimon, something both found horrible.

“La Belle Sauvage” takes place twelve years before “His Dark Materials,” when Lyra was an infant, and focuses on a boy, Malcolm Polstead, and his attempts to protect baby Lyra from those who want to imprison and use her for their own ends. The book’s second half is an epic journey through a flooded England in Malcolm’s canoe (the name of which is the book title) with Malcolm’s friend Alice and baby Lyra pursued by a villainous man, Gerard Bonneville.

Surprisingly, “The Secret Commonwealth” opens about twenty years later, and about ten years after the events told in “His Dark Materials.” Lyra is now a student at Jordan College, where she grew up, but she knows nothing about the events of “La Belle Sauvage.” Malcolm is a teacher at the college, but has not told her their history, nor has Alice, who also works at the college. Sadly, relations between Lyra and her animal companion Pantalaimon are strained and unhappy. The two can’t seem to get along anymore, always arguing and fighting over ideas Lyra has come to embrace about magic and animal companions. Nor has Pantalaimon ever quite forgiven her for their brief separation. Because of it, Pantalaiman and Lyra can spend time apart, and while out one night alone, Pantalaimon witnesses a murder near the college. He and Lyra retrieve information hidden by the murdered man which leads to trouble and danger for both of them. While they are in hiding at Malcolm’s parents’ inn, they have their worst fight ever, and Pantalaiman leaves Lyra to head off on his own. Lyra is soon on a journey as well, away from those who would arrest her in Oxford toward a mysterious place in the middle east. Malcolm is also soon headed that way, as is Pantalaimon. The separate journeys of the three, and the growing unrest and violence in that part of the world over, of all things, oil made from roses, make up the majority of the book.

The only bad thing about this novel is that, like many middle trilogy books, it takes us deep into trouble without delivering much resolution. That must come from the third book of the trilogy, which will probably arrive no sooner than another two years. Otherwise, this was an excellent read, and is highly recommended. Now I want to reread “His Dark Materials” to see what further connections I might find there to this story. If you haven’t done that in a while, it might be a good idea to reread those first before this one.

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