Book Review: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: October 3, 2019
Source: Borrowed

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.

Okay, so here’s the thing. I loved His Dark Materials. I can’t say that I loved La Belle Sauvage, but the ending was good enough to pique my interest in the rest of the series. I waited (and then waited a little more for my hold to come in at the library) and unfortunately, I’m done with this series. I don’t say this often, but this book was a waste of my time.

Click through for spoilers.So, what was wrong with this book? Let’s see.

1. Men Writing Women. Pullman did a fine job of writing Lyra as a young girl. She was a great, strong character who was capable of doing anything that needed doing. As a grown woman, I don’t even know what to think. Everything in this book is sexualized. Lyra tries to determine whether or not she’s sexually attracted to various men. She thinks about how she’s only attracted to older men. Every man is attracted to her. There’s a weird scene where Pullman talks about how Alice, another female character, isn’t beautiful or attractive but has “an intense sexuality” and it’s just… so off-putting.
2. Lyra’s relationship (or lack thereof) with Pan. Listen, I cried when Lyra and Pan separated in the original trilogy. Now they hate each other, argue a lot, Pan runs away, and that’s the book. Sure, Lyra eventually realizes that she’s being really unreasonable and tries to find Pan, but this just seemed so out of character for the two of them. After everything they’ve been through, are they really going to let some petty disagreement over a book change their lives like that?
3. A random, completely unnecessary rape scene(?!). This was absolutely disgusting and honestly, came out of nowhere. It’s incredibly detailed and incredibly upsetting. I can’t even imagine how someone who’s experienced sexual assault would react to it. Even worse than the unnecessary detail is the fact that the scene serves no purpose other than to upset Lyra.
4. Malcolm’s weird attraction to Lyra. In general, age differences don’t really bother me. But Malcolm literally cared for Lyra when she was a baby. He was her teacher as she grew up, and he just casually mentions that he’s had a crush on her since her early teens. Is this going to be a thing now? I don’t want it.
5. Nothing actually happens. This book is nearly 800 pages and I can summarize it in a few sentences. Lyra and Pan are mad at each other so Pan runs away. Lyra gets over herself and decides to find him. There’s some stuff about a rose oil crisis and refugees thrown in for good measure, then it ends. We know no more at the end than we do at the beginning.

This wasn’t the worst thing that I’ve read, but it was way too long for the amount of plot we got and Pullman made a lot of questionable decisions, both plot-wise and character-wise. Two stars because it’s not like the actual writing’s bad, but this book was wholly unnecessary.

Previously: The Golden CompassThe Subtle KnifeThe Amber SpyglassLa Belle Sauvage

Have you read The Secret Commonwealth? What about any of Pullman’s other books?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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In the third and final installment of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra has been kidnapped by her mother. She’s been drugged into a deep sleep, presumably for her own protection, as her mother has just now started feeling maternal instincts, however misguided they may be. It’s up to Will to rescue her so they can continue on their journey from the previous book.

Lyra and Will must head into the world of the dead for two reasons: for Lyra to make amends with Roger, and for Will to speak with his father. As the two of them search for the way to the world of the dead (because it’s not quite as simple as just cutting a window), they meet tiny Gallivespian spies and sassy angels. While Lyra and Will journey into this unknown world, Mary Malone begins a new life with the Mulefa in a parallel world, where she inadvertently expands upon her previous research on Dust.

Oh, this book broke my heart. I cried. More than once. This one wasn’t particularly fun to read, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. But the ending was fitting, and if you’ve read the other two books of the series, you wouldn’t expect this installment to be particularly fun anyway.

Lyra and Will grow up in this book. Sure, they started to grow up in The Subtle Knife, but they become almost-adults here. They learn tough lessons. They get their hearts and spirits broken. Pullman’s not shy with destroying their hopes and dreams, or the hopes and dreams of his readers.

As with my previous reviews of the series, here are four things I really liked in this book:

1) Mary Malone and the Mulefa. Of all the parallel worlds we encounter in this trilogy, I think the world of the Mulefa was my favorite. These oddly diamond-shaped creatures who roll around on wheels was such a departure from Pullman’s other worlds, whose creatures were fairly similar to ours. The ability of the Mulefa to live hand-in-hand with nature was wonderful, and I loved the way Mary’s previous research tied into their needs.

2) Death. I loved the whole idea of death in this book, in particular the idea that your death is floating around you all the time, and if you just acknowledge it, it can be almost a comfort to you. However, if you fear your death, try to avoid and ignore it, it becomes something that haunts you. I really liked the idea of personifying death to be someone that will help you through to the world of the dead.

3) Mrs. Coulter. I know, I know. How can I have liked her in this book? It’s not so much her character that I liked, but what Pullman did with it. Is she good? Is she evil? Has she had a change of heart? Does she really care about Lyra, or is she just using her? Does she plan to betray Lord Asriel or not? She kept me on my toes. I much prefer that to a character who is obviously a bad person.

4) As with The Subtle Knife, Will and Lyra’s relationship. These two were responsible for at least half my tears in this book. The way things turned out was heartbreaking, but it fit with the overall theme of the book, and I can’t fault Pullman for that.

What a book. What a series. I’m so glad I read it, and only upset that I didn’t do it sooner.

Final rating: 


For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #42: a book you own but have never read.

Book review: The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
Series: His Dark Materials #2
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: Goodreads • Amazon
Publication Date: July 22, 1997
Source: I’m pretty sure this was a gift

Lost in a new world, Lyra finds Will—a boy on the run, a murderer—a worthy and welcome ally. For this is a world where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and witches share the skies with troops of angels.

Each is searching—Lyra for the meaning of Dark Matter, Will for his missing father—but what they find instead is a deadly secret, a knife of untold power. And neither Lyra nor Will suspects how tightly their lives, their loves, and their destinies are bound together… until they are split apart.


This is not the first time I’ve tried to review The Subtle Knife.  I often leave reviews half-finished because I have to leave for work or make dinner or do the laundry or take a phone call.  Or whatever.  Usually they’re still waiting for me when I get back to my computer.  But sometimes my computer decides to be a jerk and do some updates while I’m away… at which point it deletes my entire review and I give up for awhile.

This happened twice with The Subtle Knife.  So this time, I’m just going to try to write it in one sitting.  I’m also going to try to follow the same format I used in my review for The Golden Compass.

In The Subtle Knife, we meet Will, a young boy from our world who has stumbled into the strange world of Cittagazze, where children run free and there are no adults to be found.  It’s not long before he meets Lyra, and the two become friends while figuring out exactly how they both came to be in this unusual place.

The children soon find that not everything in Cittagazze is like our world, or like Lyra’s.  Will becomes the new owner of the subtle knife, a knife so sharp that it can cut portals between worlds.  As Will and Lyra travel between worlds, they encounter fallen angels and evil Specters.  Mrs. Coulter and her terrifying golden monkey are an ever-present threat.  Lord Asriel’s betrayal looms over Lyra.  The alethiometer tells her she must put her own hopes and dreams aside to help Will find his father.  All these elements add up to Lyra maturing and learning to think before she acts.

So here’s what I liked:

1) Will.  This poor kid.  He’s had to take on so much responsibility in his short life, protecting his mother from evil men, and then hiding her mental illness from the authorities so they won’t take him away from her.  It’s crazy that one young boy can go through so much.  And yet Will doesn’t let that break him.  He’s strong, and brave, and kind.  He’s an admirable character.

2) The different worlds.  I’m a sucker for parallel worlds anyway, but I thought these were really well done.  There are worlds like Lyra’s and Will’s, which are similar enough in that they have a lot of the same cities, buildings, and concepts, just with different names.  Then there are worlds that are completely different, like Cittagazze, in which there are only children, because soul-sucking Specters go after the adults.  It was always exciting to see which world Will and Lyra would find themselves in next.

3) Lyra’s character development.  Remember that girl who would almost purposely get herself into terrible situations, just so she could talk her way out?  Yeah, she’s gone, replaced by a more mature young woman who clearly thinks out what her next move should be.  Lyra has learned that one wrong move could risk Will’s safety, and that’s not something she’s willing to do.

4) Will and Lyra’s relationship.  It’s pretty clear in The Subtle Knife that Will has never really had friends before.  Friends might mention to their parents that something seems a little off with Will’s mom, and then he might be taken away from her.  Lyra seems to be Will’s first real friend, and I couldn’t help but smile at how quickly they became best friends, and how easily they adapted to each other’s company.

I liked this book so much that I powered my way through it, reading it in about half the time it took me to finish The Golden Compass.

Book review: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

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Confession time: I’m pretty sure I’ve had this book since I was in high school. Maybe even middle school. A long time, regardless. It was a gift, and I’m so, so, so sorry that it took me at least ten years to read it.

I read it for two reasons:
1) I’m doing this personal challenge where I “kill” my TBR pile by reading at least three books per month that I’ve had for over a year.
2) It’s Banned Books Week and I know this book has been challenged many times for its supposed atheist message, or whatever.

Anyway, I was really pleasantly surprised, because after a rather slow start, it got really exciting! I did watch the movie when it came out years ago, but I remembered almost nothing of the plot, except that I thought there was some kind of animal following Lyra around, and there was something about a polar bear.

So, anyway…

Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan, lives with the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College. She doesn’t much like it there, since there are few people her own age to play with, and her lessons are half-hearted and dry. One day, her uncle, Lord Asriel, shows up talking about Dust, and the North, and a bunch of people Lyra has never heard of before. Lyra is intrigued by this mysterious Dust, and even more intrigued when nobody will bother explaining it to her.

Shortly after, the beautiful and charming Mrs. Coulter shows up, offering Lyra an opportunity to be her assistant and travel around the world with her. Lyra, who has never had consistent attention in her life, jumps at the chance. It’s not long, though, before Lyra realizes that something is off with Mrs. Coulter, and she may be connected to mass kidnappings in the area.

With the help of her daemon, an armored bear, and some unexpected allies, Lyra must fight her way out of Mrs. Coulter’s grasp, rescue her imprisoned uncle, and save the kidnapped children from horrific experiments.

So, all the time I was reading this book, I had one thought running through my head – “I can’t believe this is for kids.” This book is so intense! It has horrific and terrifying scenes! I mean, maybe it’s like that scene in Toy Story 3, where the toys almost get shredded and they’re preparing to die, and I was basically sobbing on the edge of my seat. Maybe kids interpret it differently. Also, I’m really sensitive and emotional, like all the time. Especially when it comes to stuff with animals, but I legit almost cried when Lyra finds out what the Gobblers actually do.

But, since I was reading this book for Banned Books Week, I do feel like it’s necessary to point out that I still liked the book, despite my strong emotional response, and I in no way think it should be pulled from library shelves.

Let me get on to the things I really liked:

1) Lyra. What a spunky kid. She never gets discouraged, never gives up, never thinks she can’t do something because of her age or her gender or her status. She finds something that needs to be done and she does it. Just like that. This is such a great thing for kids to read about. It was inspiring to me, and I’m 25!

2) The daemons. I would love to have my own daemon! Of course, I really love animals, but the thought that an animal can be a physical representation of your soul, actually linked to you, with a deep emotional connection was just so great. When it was revealed that the Gobblers were experimenting to find a way to separate people from their daemons (not a spoiler – it’s in the blurb), I cuddled my cat because it was like I could actually feel Lyra’s daemon being torn away from her.

3) I loved how the plot just twists and turns and never slows down. Think you have it figured out? You don’t. Think Lyra’s finally safe? She’s not. Think you know who the good guys and bad guys are? Nope. Think again.

4) I loved the alethiometer/symbol reader/lie detector. Lyra is the only one who can read it, and even though she’s a “just a little girl,” as some might say, she understands the importance of it and doesn’t let anybody else take it away from her. The alethiometer helps her through a number of tricky situations and turns out to be an invaluable asset.

This book was such a pleasant surprise, and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.


Final rating: ★★★★☆

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #33: a book from your childhood.