Review of The Secret Commonwealth

The Secret Commonwealth [The Book of Dust]
by Philip Pullman
Middle School, High School    Knopf    635 pp.    g
10/19    978-0-553-51066-9    $22.99
Library ed.  978-0-553-51067-6    $25.99
e-book ed.  978-0-553-51068-3    $11.99

Don’t start here. While bibliographically this second entry in Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy follows La Belle Sauvage (rev. 10/18), biographically it picks up when Lyra is twenty, with all of the events of the initial His Dark Materials trilogy now ten years in her past. Lyra’s life at Oxford is complicated by a new Master of Jordan College, who wants her out, and by changes in her relationship with her daemon, Pantalaimon. “You’re a fucking stranger to me, Pan” says Lyra, and while the rift feels manufactured (Lyra is reading an Ayn Rand–like bestseller that Pullman Pan deems “dangerous”), it sets up the structure of the novel as the two go their separate ways, she in pursuit of the supernatural roses grown in a forbidding Central Asian desert; he in pursuit of Lyra’s “imagination.” Pullman’s devotees will enjoy the often-surprising but neatly done connections to the previous volumes, with the did-they-or-didn’t-they end of The Amber Spyglass (rev. 11/00) answered here, and the young hero Malcolm (of La Belle Sauvage) taking a new, grownup interest in Lyra and her quest. The novel is rich in incident, but sprawling, requiring us at one point to follow six separate characters chasing the secret roses and/or one another. The “Secret Commonwealth” of the title hints at being something even more essential than Dust, but readers will have to wait for the next volume to (perhaps) find out; indeed, this book provides no resolutions to any of the conflicts and quests it proposes. Like I said, don’t start here.

From the November/December 2019 Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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