The His Dark Materials trilogy was one of my favourite sets of books when I was young. I thoroughly enjoyed the trilogy, and read them many times. So when Pullman announced he was returning to the world of Lyra’s Oxford with a new trilogy, a companion to HDM, I was delighted. I read La Belle Sauvage, the first book in the trilogy, in mid-2018. Although I was gifted a copy by my uncle for Christmas, it took me until May of the following year to actually pick it up. Probably because it’s quite a hefty book, and was taking up too much space in my bag. But because I enjoyed it so much (I gave it five stars, and gave it a mini-review here, as well as naming it one of my top 10 books of 2018) I took a very different approach to The Secret Commonwealth. I bought that on release weekend, only a few days after it had been published, and then lugged it around with me in the hopes that I would actually sit down and get going with it. It wasn’t until last week, when I went into Central on the Tube, that I actually got a decent chunk of it completed, and then finished it once I got home that night. But although I was much more excited to read The Secret Commonwealth, my response to it was much more lacklustre.
The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust #2) – Philip Pullman
It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.
It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.
Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .
The second volume of Sir Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.
Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.
Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.
There was lots of great stuff in this book. Similar to La Belle Sauvage and the HDM trilogy, Pullman has built a world which is complex and interesting, and he’s developing the role of the Magisterium in the eight years since Lyra and Will’s actions in The Amber Spyglass, where they changed the flow of Dust and the theories of the multiverse. The relationship between Pan and Lyra is complex and nuanced, and their experiences together as children resonate through their adult life in ways that they might never have been able to predict when they split on the edge of the Land of the Dead.
There are threads and plotlines all interweaving in this book, drawing together aspects from HDM, like Dust and Lyra’s past, and from LBS, like Malcolm and the terrifying presence that was Bonneville and his three-legged hyena demon. Throwaway details from HDM are revisited with fresh eyes several years later, and this deepens our relationship with this world. As the middle of a trilogy, this book suffers badly from middle book syndrome. Everyone is on a journey, and we know where they’re going to converge, but they have to get there, so for the majority of this book everyone is just travelling east, and it can drag a little. But there’s enough cutting between different characters to keep things interesting, particularly since we’re witness to the machinations of the Church and how its many disparate entities cleave together and apart, with an insider’s view in the form of Delamare as well as the outside view from Lyra and Malcolm. We see more of the gyptians, and as we’re partway through the book we also begin to understand the meaning of the term The Secret Commonwealth. Oakley Street makes its reappearance and old characters are cast in new light as they cross from one book into another.
But I had a major, major, huge problem with this book. And it was so huge it overshadowed all of my enjoyment of the story, the characters, the world-building, and everything to do with that. It *IS* a spoiler, so if you don’t want to be spoiled on plot points, stop reading here, and I’ll just look away so I don’t see you leaving.
Okay. Spoiler territory begins now.
Malcolm, from relatively early in the book, realises that he’s in love with Lyra.
Firstly, ew. He literally changed her nappies. That is not the kind of feeling you should be having for someone whose nappies you changed.
BUT, that said, we met Lyra as a child, and Malcolm didn’t make an appearance, so perhaps it wasn’t so bad, he only develops these feelings when he meets her as a twenty-year-old?
Nope. Malcolm has a specific scene where he reminisces about how she used to smell when he taught her history four years ago. So, when she was sixteen. A child. To his … 27 years of age at the time. Gross. I cannot countenance this kind of ridiculous thinking.
Let me tell you, I’m younger now than Malcolm Polstead is in The Secret Commonwealth, and the twenty-year-olds I see at work are in no way, shape, or form attractive to me. They are barely formed adults, and are only just working out who they are. Adding to that the idea that Malcolm literally cared for her as a baby, and there are just too many layers of ew to even go into this.
What’s worse, however, than Malcolm’s ‘love’ for Lyra is that when he goes to speak to his old friend Alice, not only does she realise that he’s in love with her (again, ew), she encourages him. Again, Alice is a person who LITERALLY changed her nappies. The two of them together acted as surrogate parents for Lyra throughout the events of La Belle Sauvage, and have watched over (to varying degrees) her throughout the rest of her life. So not only is it utterly inexplicable that Pullman would decide to write these feelings into Polstead, it’s doubly inexplicable that he would have Alice not just accept them, but approve of them. Not try to advise him away from the frankly creepy abuse of power and strange dynamic that would inevitably be inherent in his interactions with Lyra, but actively encourages it? There’s just too much strangeness here for words. I can’t get on board with it.
As I read the page where Malcolm fantasises about interacting with a teenaged Lyra (in a very chaste way, I might add, but the creepiness just oozes off the page in the narrative), I was so disturbed that I started making faces at the page. Ronan, who was sitting on the couch with me, actually asked what was wrong, my reaction was so visceral.
And let me be clear, my objection here isn’t to the notion of a relationship between a 20 year old and a 31 year old (although there are serious questions to be asked there). It is specifically to the notion of any kind of romantic feelings on the part of Malcolm towards someone who he cared for as a baby, as well as someone who he taught when she was a teenager. There is just no logical way for that dynamic to shift to romantic love, and I really, really don’t understand why Pullman would write it that way.
I’m really hoping that Pullman will come good in the third instalment of the trilogy, and have Polstead come to his senses, realise that pursuing a relationship with Lyra would be a gross abuse of power and could never result in an equal partnership, and firmly put an end to any such notions. But the hints threaded throughout the text, combined with Lyra’s mooning over Malcolm (which, if it was that direction alone, I could easily forgive, as she specifically thinks about her relationship with older men, and how she gravitates towards them because they’re so different to Will), makes me more than worried that Pullman is going to try and match these two as a romantic pairing. The mere suggestion of the possibility has me entirely disconcerted, so much so that I can’t in good conscience rate this book any higher than a three.