It’s been 16 years since we last caught up with Lyra Silvertongue in chronological order, in the short story Lyra’s Oxford, and two years since we flashed back to her as a baby, rescued from a mystical flood in The Book Of Dust Volume One: La Belle Sauvage. The Secret Commonwealth finally links up the two elements of her story, and takes both forward. Lyra is now a 20-year-old undergraduate in Oxford, while her rescuer Malcolm Polstead, the young hero from La Belle Sauvage, is now a 31-year-old scholar-cum-secret agent. The two of them are the protagonists of this story, alongside Lyra’s dæmon Pantalaimon, who is off on his own adventure following a falling-out with Lyra. All three of them find themselves journeying across Europe, trying to get to the root of the Magisterium’s suspicious interest in rose-based pharmaceuticals.
That may sound a little dry and, disappointingly, it often is. The Secret Commonwealth is not a children’s book, and it deals with a lot of adult themes, but amidst his examination of the dangers of both theocratic and rational absolutism, Pullman often forgets to include the wonder that made His Dark Materials and La Belle Sauvage such a delight to read. The detail in the book is exceptional, and his grasp of Lyra’s world is as complete and masterful as always. Most of The Secret Commonwealth is a sort of travelogue, journeying across the globe while characters – some new, some welcome old faces – pop in and out. But the journey never actually reaches its climax, and often feels like a near-700-page middle act.
Pullman raises some big ideas in The Secret Commonwealth. Some are explicit, such as the refugee crisis facing Lyra’s world, and others are addressed more subtly. Just as we readers are struggling to adjust to a new, older Lyra, so she too is trying to reconcile her new self with who she was as a child. She’s eager to embrace adulthood, and yet the part of her that is embodied in Pantalaimon misses the fearlessly imaginative Lyra that barrelled through His Dark Materials. Pullman does a wonderful job with Lyra and Pan, capturing the essence of them ten years on. Lyra has changed, because she has forced herself to change, no doubt to deal with the traumatic and confusing adventures of her childhood. Pan, however, has remained the same. Lyra is literally split in two. Pullman’s exploration of dæmons, and what they reveal about our psyches, remains the most fascinating aspect of his work.
Malcolm is not as interesting a protagonist as Lyra, and the villains here – a power-grabbing figure high up in the Magisterium and a petty and insecure Alethiometer reader – are nowhere near as memorable as the elegantly evil Mrs Coulter, or the monstrous Bonneville with his mutilated hyena dæmon. The Secret Commonwealth gives us a wider view of Lyra’s world than ever before, allowing us to glimpse the inner workings of the Magisterium and the Oakley Street secret service, but geopolitical events simply aren’t as compelling in fiction as the plight of a single character we have come to adore.