The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (2019) 687 p.

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Like its predecessor was and like its successor will be, The Secret Commonwealth is a difficult book to judge because of the weight of expectation it carries. Nobody is reading these books because they plucked them off the shelf at random; people are reading them because they read and loved His Dark Materials ten or twenty years ago and are eager to return to that world. It means these books have to stand up to a more robust assessment than they would otherwise, but I don’t think that’s unfair.

The Secret Commonwealth, unlike La Belle Sauvage, takes place not before the original trilogy but after it. Lyra is now twenty years old, studying at a college in her beloved Oxford – which is of course Pullman’s beloved Oxford, and I tell you what, he managed to make that love shine through in the original trilogy without sounding as though he was drafting a route for a walking tour. Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon, as a result of the events in The Amber Spyglass, has the ability to travel where he pleases without being proximally tethered to his human. This may or may not also be the cause of the emotional rift between the two; one of the things I didn’t twig as a kid but which I enjoy as an adult reader is the fact that, since a daemon represents a person’s own soul, the conversations they have with them are really the equivalent of a person’s internal dialogue, and Lyra and Pan coming to hate each other is a symptom of her own depression. (Later, the actions of another character’s daemon are clearly an expression of her own tragically repressed homosexuality). While out wandering the rooftops and gardens of Oxford one night, Pan witnesses a murder, kicking off a chain of events which sends both of them away on long, separate journeys.

This book is better than La Belle Sauvage. That’s a start. What it has in common with La Belle Sauvage is that Pullman has either lost the ability to kill his darlings or is now old and successful enough that his editors no longer exercise a firm pen. (See also: J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, etc.) Northern Lights is an epic in miniature, each chapter moving the story dramatically forward, each introducing some interesting new concept or event or set of characters; by page 200 of Northern Lights, Lyra is standing in the snow in Norway, meeting Iorek Byrnison. By page 200 of The Secret Commonwealth, in comparison, everybody is still faffing about in Oxford doing the sort of amateur cloak and dagger stuff Pullman should have got out of his system with the Sally Lockhart books.

Aside from pacing, another issue it shares with La Belle Sauvage is that it feels rather hum-drum. The story of Northern Lights, while it happened to be focusing on Britain and the Arctic, always suggested that Lyra’s whole world was a fantastic map of magic and adventure; if somebody in the first chapter can passingly refer to “the bears” up north in a way which makes it clear they’re sentient, what else might be beyond the horizon, taken for granted by people who live in a world where even southern England is brimming with fantasy? The answer, in this new trilogy, is “not much.” There’s promise at the start, as Lyra reads second-hand in the murdered man’s journal about a mysterious desert in central Asia, a hidden palace containing some unknown treasure guarded by enigmatic sentries without daemons; encouraging stuff! But then she and Pan and Malcolm set off on separate journeys across a Europe which – aside from an encounter with a pair of cursed elemental beings on an atmospheric evening in Prague – does not feel very different from the real Europe. This is not helped by the fact that Pullman inexplicably felt the need to include a ripped-from-the-headlines Mediterranean refugee boat crisis.

Did I enjoy The Secret Commonwealth more than most fantasy? Yes, though I still found my attention wandering quite often. Will I read the final book in the trilogy? Of course. But neither it nor La Belle Sauvage come anywhere close to living up to the legacy of His Dark Materials. Possibly that was inevitable, but it’s a shame nonetheless.