It’s been 25 years since The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the U.K.) was first published and became a children’s lit hit. A coming-of-age story nestled in a riveting otherworldly adventure filled with witches, talking polar bears, and animal companions, Pullman would use that children’s fantasy smokescreen to slowly introduce an unexpected subversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost. When the heroine Lyra fails to save her friend at the end of The Golden Compass, the shock that that this was not going to be your average children’s fantasy adventure was eye-opening. It was just the beginning of Pullman’s extraordinary twists — soon his lighthearted fantasy adventure turned into an epic of God-killing proportions. By the time The Amber Spyglass hit bookshelves in 2000, readers of Pullman’s newly dubbed His Dark Materials trilogy were changed — coming of age through the series much like the beloved characters.
But 25 years later, His Dark Materials is ready for adulthood. The author made a highly anticipated return to the world of His Dark Materials (after a brief sojourn in 2003 with the short story Lyra’s Oxford) with 2017’s La Belle Sauvage, the first installment in a new spin-off trilogy The Book of Dust. It was a solid new novel that recaptured the wondrous quality of the original books while adding a fairy tale-like spin. But its narrative, which followed two new characters who embark on a journey to protect Lyra as a baby during a flood that nearly wipes out Oxford, was rather slim. The second book in The Book of Dust, the recently released The Secret Commonwealth, swings in the complete opposite direction, with a more mature tone and a complex plot involving religious conspiratorial schemes and roses that stretches out over a monstrous 600 pages.
Set 8 years after the events of the original His Dark Materials series, The Secret Commonwealth follows a 20-year-old Lyra, now an undergraduate at St. Sophia’s College. But this isn’t the Lyra we remembered: she’s aloof and skeptical, which has led to her growing distant from her daemon Pantalaimon, who has never fully recovered from the time that she abandoned him in the Land of the Dead. During one of Pan’s solo midnight adventures, he stumbles across a man being murdered by two shadowy figures. Approaching the dying man, he discovers that the man and his daemon can separate like him and Lyra, and that the man has a valuable piece of luggage that the two figures were trying to steal. That murder kicks off a series of events that finds Lyra and drawn into a vast conspiracy involving a secret service, of which Malcolm Polstead from La Belle Sauvage is now a member, and a surreal fantasy underworld dubbed the secret commonwealth. But Lyra and Pan’s strained relationship reaches a breaking point after she refuses to let go of her newfound fanaticism for philosophers who dismiss the existence of daemons, resulting in Pan abandoning her in the middle of the night.
Right from the start, Pullman paints a darker picture of the world than the one introduced in His Dark Materials. Rather than the fantasy adventure of the first novels, The Secret Commonwealth is presented as an espionage thriller, alternating between Lyra’s quest to find Pan, and Malcolm’s investigations into the Magisterium’s curious actions against rose farmers. But while Pullman has juggled POVs in this series before, the increasingly large ensemble of characters turn The Secret Commonwealth into a bit of an unwieldy beast. The book starts off strong, with Lyra and Malcolm off on their respective quests after an unlikely reunion between the two of them leaves their destinies forever intertwined. But the story quickly expands, introducing the ambitious young cardinal Marcel Delamare, Mrs. Coulter’s brother and Lyra’s uncle; as well as the haughty alethiometer reader Olivier Bonneville, who is pursuing Lyra for her ownership of her own altheiometer. It’s a complicated tangle of characters and storylines that Pullman only makes more complicated as the book wears on, and seems to have no interest in unraveling.
Pullman’s newly mature approach to the story, laden with curse words and dark deeds, had me wondering whether the author took any inspiration from the recently aired HBO adaptation of his series. The BBC and HBO co-production took extra effort to be taken seriously as a fantasy series for adults, with a sleek espionage angle not unlike the one the one in The Secret Commonwealth. We may be seeing the growing pains of His Dark Materials as it evolves with a new trilogy hoping to bring back old readers who have long outgrown the series. But, before Harry Potter came of age with its readers and before Game of Thrones made fantasy cool for adults, have children’s fantasy books been pushed to mature with their audiences? Classic fantasy novels like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time spawned several-book series, but usually maintained their writing style and target demographics. Even after Harry Potter, you see Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books written in as juvenile a style as ever. I probably wouldn’t wonder about this so much if Pullman didn’t make such an abrupt tonal shift between the slim fairy tale quest narrative of La Belle Sauvage and the complex espionage thriller of The Secret Commonwealth. But then again, His Dark Materials was always a series filled with unique shifts in genre and fascinating ideas that don’t always come to fruition.
It is Pullman’s weird, captivating ideas that make The Secret Commonwealth pop, despite some of its structural weaknesses. One particularly bewitching sequence follows Lyra as she is swept up in a plot between a sorcerer and his son, who had been transformed into a being of pure fire. It’s a fantastical, dreamlike episode that verges on magical realism, and is one of the few instances in which The Secret Commonwealth dips its toes into the high fantasy elements that were teased in La Belle Sauvage. But despite the intriguing new mysteries surrounding a special type of rose oil which allows its owners to see Dust, I found myself frustrated by Pullman’s dismissal of his own rich ideas that had carried us through the original trilogy. Gone were the subversive religious elements that pervaded His Dark Materials — only the Magisterium and its oppressive nature remained. The original trilogy was billed as a retelling of Paradise Lost, but Pullman’s actual conclusion to this religious saga (whether he knew it or not) more resembled animism, the religious belief that every object and living being contains spiritual essence or consciousness. In The Secret Commonwealth, all those high-minded notions about Dust have been all but abandoned, and the element is back to being a subject of fear and distrust.
But despite my qualms with the sprawling, messy structure of the book and Pullman’s vague, incomplete ideas, I’m willing to forgive The Secret Commonwealth. The Secret Commonwealth is very much a middle chapter in a trilogy, a book in which Pullman is trying to find his tone and find the franchise’s place in today’s gritty fantasy-obsessed world. It’s going through some growing pains, but hopefully it will emerge from the other side even more beautiful than before.
The Secret Commonwealth is available in bookstores now.
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