••• The International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Book Review
The Book of Dust Vol.2: The Secret Commonwealth
By Philip Pullman
David Fickling Books
Hardcover: 689 pages
ISBN: 978-0- 241-37333-0
Sam Hawksmoor review
‘His Dark Materials’ is on BBC TV now as a new series and it is still a thrilling adventure that will fascinate it’s intended audience, which is of course, children and all those who read it twenty years ago. (The first eight episodes cover the events that took place in the movie Golden Compass at a more leisurely pace allowing for more character development). All three books in the series will be shown over the next two years. BBC and HBO.
But now what are we to make of The Book of Dust: Volume Two. Pullman isn’t following the rules. Book One takes place just after Lyra is born and she is placed on the River Thames in a little boat during a major flood and is snatched by a witch then rescued by one Malcolm Polstead. The important thing to know is that you don’t need to read Book One to enjoy Book Two set twenty years on, although I would suggest you would need to have read ‘His Dark Materials’ or at least have watched the TV series. In any case there are quite a few catch-up moments to remind the reader of what went on before, which might account for the 689 pages of text.
The Secret Commonwealth picks up Lyra’s story ten years after she has been North to try to rescue Roger and the Gyptian children, meet the armoured bears and visit the city of the dead. It is important to recall that Lyra’s daemon Pan is separated from her, although both are still together. Lyra is now a second-year student at Oxford and a very unhappy soul. She is in thrall to nihilistic philosophers who are all the rage amongst the young; writers who deny the very existence of daemons, like Pan. They make fun of all the experiences she had, the other worlds, witches, spirits, all of it is mere illusion and Pan is deeply troubled by Lyra’s mental condition. The happy-go-lucky twelve-year-old has been replaced by this dull, unadventurous, quarrelsome twenty-year-old student. They fight all the time.
After one particular disagreement Pan goes for a walk by the river and witnesses a brutal murder. The dying man entrusts his wallet to Pan, understanding that he is unique in being separated from his human. Pan returns with the wallet to Lyra and together they explore its strange contents.
This is no ordinary murder mystery. The dead man, a botanist has recently returned from a mysterious place in Asia where there is deep unrest and a war raging against rose growers. It might seem inconsequential but it is the ‘essence’ of the whole novel. At the same time the great evil force that is the Magisterium is stirring up unrest to regain lost influence against liberal ideas. A theme that resonates in our own world, right now.
Lyra comes under pressure from the new scheming, heartless and insensitive Master of Jordan College and one senses it’s no accident he is named Dr Hammond. He tells Lyra that there is no money to support her studies or lodging and she must eat with the servants from now on. (She welcomes eating with the servants, but regrets the loss of her two rooms). Lyra and Pan recover the lost possessions of the murdered man and the mystery deepens. She discovers that she has allies in the College that she never realised. Dr Polstead, who she couldn’t abide as a tutor, turns out to be the man whom as a boy who saved her from the flood and Alice, the College housekeeper is an Oakley Street secret agent who has watched over her for years.
Pan, still deeply upset over Lyra’s indifference to him decides to leave. He is going in search of her lost imagination and in a unique twist; this will be the very first and only book wherein the main hero is a pine-marten on a quest.
This is an epic sweeping novel. We follow the main protagonists, Lyra, Pan, Malcolm Polstead and Alice through the huge changes that are taking place in their lives.
Lyra’s first step is to go to Farder Coram; the old leader of the Gyptians in the Fens. (A central character from her earlier adventures). Unaware that someone, far away is tracking her every move using an alethiometer utilising a new more direct method to follow her. Who is this Oliver character, adept at alethiometric skills under the guidance of Delamere, the chief schemer of the Magisterium at La Maison Juste? What is Marcel Delamere’s obsession with Lyra?
The story leaves England for the Continent. Lyra is physically attacked; she is alone, without her daemon, something that so many people find abhorrent. She is searching for Pan, for she guiltily knows she can’t abandon him. Pan meanwhile has reached Europe and is on a quest to find the author of the book that has made Lyra so miserable and confront him.
Meanwhile all across Europe desperate refugees are turning up, driven out of their homelands by agents of the Magisterium and the mysterious Men from the Mountains, bent on destruction of the rose and all those who benefit from it. In this world, as in ours, Syrian refugees are afloat, desperate and afraid of what is to come next.
The Book of Dust Vol 2 is not an easy read. There are heroics to be sure, but the Lyra of old is gone, in her place is a sad creature, lost in her doubts and cut off from the one rational creature that could help her, Pan. She intends to find Pan in the Blue Hotel, a place where only lost daemons can go, but is it real or mythological and where exactly is it? She meets all kinds of people like her, cut off from the daemons and all the while she is hunted by agents of Delamere.
You will have to wait a long time for Book 3 and resolution but one can only hope that Lyra can be saved both physically and spiritually.
© Sam Hawksmoor - author of ‘Girl with Cat (Blue)'