The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (“The Book of Dust” Vol.2) by Philip Pullman (Penguin/Random House) picks up 20 years after the events of The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage and 10 years after the events described in the final book of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy The Amber Spyglass. Lyra Silvertongue, as she’s now known, is 20 years old and a student at Oxford university.
While on the surface she may look like any other university student attending St. Sophia’s College for women, underneath she carries the burdens of her adventurous younger life. The fact that she and her dæmon Pantalaimon (Pan) can live separately further sets her apart from her contemporaries. Not that she or Pan are keen for anybody to find out. If it were known they would be shunned.
However the trauma which allowed them to live separately has also damaged their relationship. Where once they were inseparable, mirror images of each other’s feelings, now they can’t abide to be with each other. One night when Pan is out for a solitary walk he witnesses a man being brutally murdered. Not only does this expose Lyra to a whole new set of dangers, whose root is a familiar source, the all powerful religious organization The Magisterium, it all precipitates the permanent separation of Lyra and Pan.
You see Lyra has changed. She’s no longer the imaginative and inventive child of the first trilogy – she’s become rational and logical. She’s a fan of books which look for rational explanations for everything, ones that even try to make the argument that dæmons are illusions. When Pan leaves her it’s with a note saying he’s gone to look for her imagination.
This disconnection between these two former companions is somehow tied into a new stratagem hatched by an obscure branch of The Magisterium, La Maison Juste. It seems like it’s all part and parcel of a plan to bring more and more people under their tight control As before these people are obsessed with ensuring people are kept ignorant and in fear.
This means doing whatever possible to suppress knowledge or the means of acquiring it. So while Lyra is chasing across Europe and the Middle East searching for Pan, she’s also being pursued by the forces of the Magisterium. Fortunately for her, she’s not without allies. Old friends from previous books, Malcolm Polstead and the gyptians, are all working to keep her safe.
However, her quest to find Pan will take her into dangers she’s never experienced or dreamed of, and the forces at work against her are even more powerful and insidious then ever. It’s a dangerous world that Pullman has created in The Secret Commonwealth for Lyra Silvetongue to attempt to navigate.
Pullman is a master storyteller, and The Secret Commonwealth shows all his talents on full display. Not only does he manage to weave together multiple plot lines and characters into a seamless tapestry, the world he’s created for them to exist in is as fascinating as its eerily familiar.
While the parallels between the world and created in The Secret Commonwealth and ours are plain to see: keep people uninformed to control them, curtail imaginative and creative thinking, refugees fleeing attacks from well armed but unknown militias, and religious fanatics trying to dictate to the masses ‘the right way’, Pullman is too good a writer to allow them to detract from our enjoyment of the story.
He’s never didactic or preachy, and everything is perfectly integrated into the story. However, anyone who has been paying attention to the world around them for the last decade can not fail to see the elements the two worlds have in common.
Aside from the pleasure of seeing familiar characters ten years older and navigating adulthood, The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth will also bring joy to readers of all ages for its intelligence and excellent story. Not only is it worthy second instalment in “The Book of Dust” trilogy, it continues to prove this sequence will be every bit as excellent as “His Dark Materials”.