‘You’re in a world full of colour and you want to see it in black and white…’
In the absence of Game of Thrones, the His Dark Materials franchise has the potential to fill that dragon shaped hole (although you won’t find dragons in Philip Pullman’s work). The BBC/HBO adaptation, currently nearing the end of its second season, has turned on a whole new generation to Pullman’s much beloved original trilogy, and this has only heightened expectation for The Book of Dust trilogy. I had misgivings going into La Belle Sauvage – the first book in this new trio of stories – but Pullman swept those concerns away with a novel that is almost as good as the ones that preceded it, despite the notable omission of any talking bears. The Secret Commonwealth is also utterly lacking in talking bears, and also marks the first time that the series has dipped somewhat…
Picking up seven years after the conclusion of The Amber Spyglass, The Secret Commonwealth finds Lyra Silvertongue at a crossroads. Her home at Jordan College is in doubt, her relationship with Pan is at an all-time low, and it appears she has lost her spark, her penchant for imagination, leading to a life with the colour drained out of it. As ever with Lyra, it is forces beyond her control that set her in motion, but once she sets out to achieve something, nothing will stop her.
Away from the world of alethiometers and daemons, Pullman has delved into espionage before, namely in the Sally Lockheart novels. I had to ferry a group of disinterested teenagers through the first novel in that franchise – The Ruby in the Smoke – which eventually left me frustrated and disappointed. Gone were the fantastical imaginings of a parallel world just out of reach, and in its place I found a plot that was confusing, one dimensional characters and a litany of cliched and well-worn tropes. Whilst The Secret Commonwealth isn’t as bad as all that, it does have a similar mystery at its core and this ensures that the story becomes ever more labyrinthine and complex. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s also not why I return to the world of Lyra Silvertongue.
The Secret Commonwealth stills has some wonderful moments and some breathtakingly thrilling passages of prose, but ultimately it feels like what it is, a stepping stone between two stories. This is often the case with the second part of a trilogy, but Philip Pullman has already demonstrated that he is able to avoid this pitfall. Hopefully the final book in the series will be a triumphant return to form.