thoughts on The Secret Commonwealth
in the news books his dark materials the book of dust review
☆: Monday, December 23, 2019. ∆: Tuesday, October 20, 2020. Belief: very unlikely.

This contains spoilers for The Secret Commonwealth & His Dark Materials. If you’re looking for a spoiler free review: it’s okay. It’s not as great as any of the prior books, and it leaves something to be desired. If you’re this far in, though, you should read it and form your own opinion, because of who the book is about.

Also, read content warnings before reading the book.

Content warning: Sexual assault.

How do I feel after reading The Secret Commonwealth? Like I just fell into the desert, got a whole bunch of sand in my mouth, and only have the option of washing it out with more sand.

It’s not that The Secret Commonwealth is bad. It’s not. In La Belle Sauvage, Phillp Pullman pulls you down a river. In TSC, you’re pulled through a desert, and whereas the flood in the first novel propelled the story along quite nicely, “going to an unknown destination on a hunch” does not.

I have to say that I’ve never been more worried about how a book series is progressing. I think that Lyra’s adventures in His Dark Materials were so well done that anything that follows carries more weight than ever. Lyra was so well written that I’ve grown quite attached to who she is. Throughout His Dark Materials, she is motivated, driven, and powerful, despite her age. With a bitter sweet ending, Lyra’s final words declared her next move: build the Republic of Heaven. Now, however, that’s all forgotten.

The early portions of the book are fine enough. TSC chronologically follows Lyra’s Oxford, but does not really build off of it, save for one returning character. Lyra is older, and with that come obvious changes for a teenager to go through. She’s had relationships (or maybe just one), and she’s had classes, and drama and all that. That’s all fine and good.

The central plot line surrounding her and her separation from Pan is challenging, intellectually. I think this is probably one of the more central thematic elements worth noting. If dæmons are souls, then does her separation mean that she’s able to disconnect from her soul? What does it mean for the humans in Will’s world that have dæmons that are unable to be seen by them? Do they separate too? It seems like the implication is that depression comes from strained relationship with one’s dæmon, but it’s clear that Lyra is still functional (albeit, in a reduced way (so maybe that is depression?)) even when she’s separated from Pan. It opens up a lot of questions, and this is one of the areas where I’m actually quite intrigued to see what happens next.

Some of the other plot lines seem relatively disjointed. These are entirely not resolved by the end, and feel very out of place.

  • Roses grown from (罗布泊) Lop Nur possess highly potent healing qualities, the ability to see Dust, and are apparently quite valuable. They’re also being hunted down and exterminated by the church, because of the aforementioned Dust link.
    • A research station near Lop Nur was destroyed, and a red building in the desert hides an elusive mystery inside it.
  • Lyra’s (real) uncle apparently exists, and is on the path for vengeance, wanting to indoctrinate her for…reasons.
    • The dude that was paid by Lyra’s uncle wants to track her down and kill her, because he wants to steal the alethiometer (which, turns out, was originally his father’s).
  • An alchemist turns his son and his son’s dæmon into fire and water and then combines them to create steam to power an engine (and then that’s the end of that).
  • Lyra’s (real) uncle is also on the war path, and wants to obtain power, because power is cool.
  • Lyra’s favorite author has no dæmon of his own, and bought a replacement. This is discovered after Pan’s interrogation of him, which led precisely nowhere.

These are okay enough plot lines and details to run a story. It’s just that there are so many things going on that nothing feels like the primary focus…except: a possible romance between Malcom and Lyra? It kind of seems like it.

There’s this pretty prominent part of the book where Malcom starts thinking about Lyra. You don’t realize it’s coming if you’re reading the audiobook and can’t look ahead, but it starts to sound eerily like a “falling in love” story. Then it happens and Malcom just comes out and says it. After that, almost every other character he meets identifies this quality about him instantly.

On Lyra’s side, though, it seems like she’s just being written to love Malcom right back. She described her earlier encounters with Malcom as adversarial and even disrespectful. Now, after exchanging a couple letters, she’s now focusing on him an abnormal amount, with literally zero “on screen” chemistry. She goes from barely caring about him at all to re-reading his letters to her as if they’re liquid gold.

Is it a red herring? I think it could be. For everything that’s been said in the universe so far, I don’t see Will coming back as being out of the question. In fact, given how the angels in HDM alluded to the fact that there were already other ways to jump between worlds without the knife, I think a “return of Will” is possible for the third installment. That would make the “romance” between Malcom a red herring, because it doesn’t feel organic as is.

It’s just really really easy for this to be a thing we’re supposed to accept, though.

It would be trivial to write a story where Lyra suddenly falls in love with Malcom, and presto. It’s also so obvious and so overdone (girl falls in love with older man) that it feels contrary to who Lyra is. Lyra from HDM has tenacity, breaks the rules, and often decides for herself what to do next. She decided to trust Will because he was a murderer.

In contrast, Malcom is more of a father figure – and if she were to fall in love with him, she’d literally be falling into the tsundere archetype. It’s not the level of writing I expect from Phillip Pullman.

That leads me to my last bit of uncomfortableness: an attempted gang rape and successful sexual assault on Lyra in the last part of the book. Somewhat out of the blue, Lyra’s attempt to be invisible on a train full of soldiers turns into a full on rape scenario with grabbing and touching and descriptions of panties being pulled1.

To borrow the words of Zero Punctuation:

This section contains as jarring a shift of tone as you can get without splicing five minutes of The Human Centipede into the middle of Mallrats.

Coming to the close of TSC, Pullman can easily go in one of two directions. He can write a “fairy tail romance ending” with Lyra quickly falling in love with Malcom, who comes to protect her from the forces of evil. Bog standard and predictable. Or he could use Malcom as a red herring, and go in a completely different direction.

TSC ends on an abrupt cliffhanger. While I plan to read the sequel, I’m left in a state of flux. I don’t know if I like TSC, and I feel like the answer is a hesitation filled “no,” but at the same time, I feel like that could change with the third installment.

bonus content: the ending of The Amber Spyglass

I didn’t write a review of The Amber Spyglass, nor any thoughts or anything else on it. I do want to address one thing though: my thoughts on the ending.

Lyra and Will are told that dust is escaping the multiverse by way of holes created by the subtle knife. Further, they’re told that while their love creates more Dust, even two doorways into other worlds are enough to cause a net loss of Dust over time. Therefore, all doorways but one must be closed.

Lyra and Will accept this “wisdom” from the adults at face value, which is in direct contrast to what Lyra did before.

  • Lyra went to the North Pole, evading Ms. Coulter & the church, to attempt to rescue Roger in His Dark Materials.
  • Lyra effectively overthrows a bear kingdom based on her own intuition of morality.
  • Lyra straight up walks into a different world and distrusts her own father after he sacrifices Roger.
  • Lyra separates from her dæmon for the purpose of literally going to the world of the dead to find Roger. This is such a taboo that it becomes a central plot point in The Secret Commonwealth.
  • Lyra ultimately finds and talks with Roger, and then literally helps every single member of the world of the dead escape purgatory.
  • That whole “killing God” thing.

They could have simply kept one extra doorway open, and then had the angels close that doorway at the end of their natural lives. Surely the entire multiverse is not going to lose such a considerable amount of Dust in the span of 80-90 years? Wouldn’t that just recover over time with all leaks plugged and new Dust being generated?

It just kind of seems unlikely that Lyra and Will would forsake each other based on the direction of adults & angels. For a re-telling of Paradise Lost, I am genuinely shocked they didn’t just take each other and walk away. I get the whole “dust == knowledge” and “Will == Adam” equivalence, but it seems that in this case, the knowledge of how Dust works would have enabled – not inhibited – true love.

  1. This is all I intend to say about that scene. I find it quite uncomfortable to write about this in the context of Lyra, and it’s not worth going into more detail. [return]