The Secret Commonwealth spoke to me

I previously read all the His Dark Materials series, some of the accompanying light novels and the Book of Dust prequel. Now, the story continues.

Now, I’ve just read Phillip Pullmans “The Secret Commonwealth“. It engrossed me and got me thinking deeply.

Lyra & Pan

DæmonLyra & Pan are two characters that I grew up reading about – I have re-read His Dark Materials many times over the years. I am glad to be able to read now about their on-going adventure.

The struggle that Lyra & Pan are going through from the very start of the novel resonated quite a lot with me. Lyra becomes more cynical and analytics, that happens with age and maturity, but Pan wants to stay imaginative and playful. The sets up one hell of a mental struggle. I have recently been feeling something similar and, not expecting that to be what the book would open to, it came as quite a shock to me when I began to read it.

In this fictional universe you can actually talk to part of your self (your dæmons) – I do wonder if that would make it easier to cope with or more difficult. I suppose you would need to very carefully manage your mental capacities, as if it got too bad then exactly what happens in this book would happen – you lose part of yourself. And its a struggle to get it back.

Throughout Lyra’s journey in this book there are moments when she gets quite introspective, and other moments where she is very externalised – such as when she does some people watching from a café. I might have to try that some time.

She also feels out of place. Imposter Syndrome can be quite common – I have experienced it many times before – but Lyra’s is quite literal. The part of herself she has lost is normally visible to the world around her, so people naturally shun her for it. This all seems to be kicked off by her sense of detachment that arises from having read books that made her want to deny reality.

Mental health struggles can be very difficult to deal with, particularly the ones spurred on by existential stresses. Reading this book has given me a lot to think about that.

The World Building

Furnace ManThe world Phillip Pullman has built up continues to grow in this novel, as well as it ever does.

The namesake topic for this book is the secret commonwealth. These are the preternatural events that happen every day around us, spurred on by hidden beings and spirits. Immersing Lyra in this forces her to consider that which can only really be seen through her imagination. Using something that isn’t really real as a way to ground yourself back in reality is certainly an interesting approach.

The idea of a secret commonwealth of who knows what permeating the land around us is always a fascinating idea. If you just knew what to look for and accept it, you could see it too. It reminds me quite a bit of the faeries and other spooks presented in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, but a lot more ethereal.

The religious, political and conspiratorial intrigue in this story is as good as ever. This one presents a fractured religious rule finally managing to organise itself in a dangerous fashion. Only made possible through the kind of political backstabbing of which there seems to be quite a bit in real life politics these days. Something I quite like is the capitalist interest thrown into the maelstrom – the trifecta of politics, religion and capitalism is sure to cause chaos, and Pullman has written it well here.

A big focus in this novel is the investigation of how the lower classes in life have to suffer as all this goes on. I didn’t really notice that as much in the earlier novels. Here we have many mirrors for real life, such as refugees and migrants, mistreatment of people in lower standing both at work and in society.

The issue I found most powerful, and which grounds the imaginary alternate universe really well, was towards the end of the story. Illicit dæmon trade – people who are willing, or need, to sell their dæmon in order to survive. How the salesmen who try to pawn them off would even try to sell insurance against the original owner’s demise. It’s certainly an analogue to people selling their bodies, but made a lot more powerful by the fact that this is effectively a part of their soul.

Dust still has a role in this story but the main issues are now how the alethiometer is read and the rose oil which has curious visual properties. There isn’t much focus on the science behind this but I was very drawn to the couple of descriptions of how the rose oil was discovered, and how the religious groups fear and want to try and control it.

There are a great many powerful scenes in this book that help build up the world and the characters.  On the more spooky side there’s the demise of the furnace man, there’s the spying and intrigue from Oakley Street, a difficult scene with Lyra on a train trying to defend herself… Pretty much every chapter brings something special to the story. There’s no fluff or padding here.

The Ongoing Story

Story CardsI love seeing the story and characters evolving. The grand story Pullman has built is always moving, and this adds a lot of tense atmosphere. Anything could happen next – I don’t think there are any limits here.

I can’t wait for the next and supposedly final instalment in this series. I hope it doesn’t end on too bleak a note.


This post contains chapter header illustrations from the novel, drawn by Chris Wormell.

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    1. I’ve been anticipating this series for a while – looks like it’ll be released soon!

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