Wednesday, December 11, 2019

'The Secret Commonwealth' by Philip Pullman

11 December 2019

It must have been daunting for Philip Pullman to attempt to follow his acclaimed trilogy of ‘His Dark Materials’ novels with a similarly ambitious trio, ‘The Book of Dust’. But, so far, this second series of books about Lyra Silvertongue and a parallel-world Oxford populated by people with animal daemons is shaping up to surpass the original. Some are saying the latest novel, ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ (the middle volume of ‘The Book of Dust’), is the best of all. It’s hard to compare it with ‘Northern Lights’ which felt like an instant classic of children’s literature but ‘The Secret Commonwealth’, which I’ve just finished reading as an unabridged audio book narrated by Michael Sheen, is a stunning thriller. Lyra is now 20 years old and although the events in this novel happen after her journey to the North (and beyond) in the ‘His Dark Materials’ books, ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ has more in common with the prequel ‘La Belle Sauvage’ (reviewed here in November 2017), with the events of the great flood that happened when Lyra was a baby coming back to affect the adult Lyra. ‘The Book of Dust’ takes Spenser's ‘The Faerie Queene’ as its underlying theme and ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ starts to take us further into the faerie realm. This is a much more grown-up book with some scenes of extreme violence and sexual assault. It has the feeling of a cold war spy thriller, with the action moving across Europe and into Central Asia. The stakes seem even higher than in the previous novels and no character feels entirely safe. Pullman is very good at the high-level political scheming and his targets here include multi-national corporations and people-trafficking as well as organised religion. I really enjoyed ‘The Secret Commonwealth’. It ends rather abruptly with ‘to be continued’ and I can’t wait for the final volume of ‘The Book of Dust’.



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