The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Review by Sasa Popovich

Knopf Books for Young Readers, Penguin Random House, October 2019

656 pages, hardcover, $22.99 CAD, 978-0-55351-066-9

Ages 13-18, Grades 8-12

Young Adult, Fantasy

She reached over him and slid the window up, popping it open with the nearest book.

“Don’t—” he began.

“Don’t shut the window, yes, Pan, just sit there freezing till Pan decides to come home. I’m not stupid at all. Go on, bugger off.”

He flowed out and into the ivy covering the wall of the college. Only the faintest rustle came to Lyra’s ears, and then only for a moment. Pan didn’t like the way they were speaking to each other, or rather not speaking; in fact, these words were the first they’d exchanged all day. But he didn’t know what to do about it, and neither did she.

What happens when our childhood heroes grow up? In this second installment in The Book of Dust series, author Philip Pullman delves into the complex realities of becoming an adult whilst trying to retain the magic of childhood.

Seven years after the events of The Amber Spyglass—the concluding book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy—Lyra Belacqua has grown up. In the process, her imaginative and adventurous spirit have vanished, exchanged for a studious work ethic and a philosophy of rationality. Real problems surround her, with the new Master of Jordan College threatening to remove Lyra from Oxford, the only home she has known. The magical romance of her youth is gone, replaced with short flings with men who cannot understand her. And, most of all, Lyra’s relationship with her Daemon Pantalaimon (Pan)—a talking animal companion that serves as an outer expression of one’s soul—is fraught with resentment.

Of all Lyra’s adulthood struggles, her feud with Pan is most central to her character and the story’s plot. In Pan’s opinion, Lyra has lost her imagination, whereas Lyra feels Pan is stuck in their childhood, unable to view the world rationally. When their relationship grows so bad they barely speak, Pan runs away, leaving Lyra alone and isolated with no one who understands her.

Lyra leaves Oxford and sets off across Europe and Asia alone and uncertain. Over the course of her journey, Lyra’s newfound perspective on life is put to the test as she encounters figures from her past and faces a series of physical and supernatural phenomena, as well as the ever-present threat of the Magisterium’s religious doctrine. Through these experiences, Lyra comes to the conclusion that her staunchly rational mindset has a limited perspective. As a result, she sets her sights on finding both Pan, and the magic of her youth, which he represents. The story that follows features Lyra reconnecting with her adventurous childhood while maintaining some of the maturity necessary for adulthood. 

Through this lens, Pullman articulates common struggles that new adults face. And yet, he does so through an epic and fantastical journey, demonstrating the ability for magic and adventure to coexist with rationality and adulthood. As is often the case in Pullman’s stories, the focus drifts at times, with long chapters dedicated to characters whose importance is still unclear by the end of the story. Nevertheless, Lyra’s story comes full circle, setting up what must be a thrilling conclusion in the forthcoming installment. 

With its strong-willed heroine and a world that mixes magic, technology, and philosophy, The Secret Commonwealth echoes works such as Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, but with a protagonist who faces adult problems. Ultimately, Pullman leaves his readers with the understanding that despite the realities of everyday adulthood, the magic of childhood is never completely beyond one’s grasp.

Sasa Popovich is an undergrad student at UBC in the English Literature program, focusing primarily on contemporary and children’s literature. He has taken several creative writing classes as electives, and writes long form fantasy and children’s literature.

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