**Spoilers for His Dark Materials trilogy and The Book of Dust trilogy below**
A lot happens in this book, and nothing happens. Which was predictable. The second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy is also a filler, but at least then they get the stupid knife. A Secret Commonwealth feels like a million pages of setting up, introducing us to characters that will probably be important, moving them to where the next war is going to break, explaining their motivations. It’s basically a very long background story, since we don’t get the satisfaction of seeing even one of the conflicts Pullman set in motion get settled. The only significant character development comes from Pullman introducing us to a completely changed Lyra, and then slowly proceeding to walk her back to a point where she might at least believe daemons are real, probably because she spends a few weeks painfully missing her own, though mostly because society ostracizes her for going without. It’s a weird way of establishing the dangers of alienating yourself from parts of your soul.
I’m not exactly against the idea of there being a disconnect between the Lyra we met as a child in previous books and Lyra as a young woman who has spent the last few years of her life in college. People have to change after all. But it doesn’t feel organic or earned. Nearly a decade ago Lyra got to meet witches, angels, specters, and cliff-ghasts, befriend armored bears and mulefas, and walk through the world of the dead. Now we’re told she has become a deep skeptical. She has no imagination, but she’s also sure she imagined all of this. Her parents are still very much missing (we know they are dead, but Lyra doesn’t seem to know this for a fact), Will is still very much in another world, there’s still a world of the dead she tore through to release its ghosts, but she’s come across two philosophers she likes and now she apparently can’t gauge reality anymore. It feels like Pullman wanted to mount a critique of our fake news world, which I can’t complain about, since I feel a similar bile towards it, but it doesn’t feel like Lyra and Pullman fails to convince she has gone through all of this change and that this personality shift even matters. We know she will transform back to a Lyra who believes in things like the Secret Commonwealth and that she and Pan will patch things up, so this character transformation just ends making Lyra exhausting.
It’s basically a crutch to get her to go on another journey to get herself saddled with saving the Universe again. Lyra doesn’t seem to want this, or care too deeply about anything that isn’t directly tied to her predicament, which is very big turnabout from what the proactive desire to do impossible things that had made her so compelling in the past. New Lyra is definitely not someone I wanted to spend 600 pages with, and at various points of the book, I quit, read other things, played mobile games, and just dreaded picking the book back up. Maybe I should have abandoned it, because the second-half is even more soporific and infuriating than the first.
What was the point of bringing back Lyra when she has no agency, no joy, and no interest in the world around her? She’s now listless and incurious enough that even after a decade of studying the alethiometer, she didn’t bother to ask a single question about how her parents died, or that huge war she was at the center of, or all those Magisterium people and angels that kept trying to kill her. She seems unhappy enough to be alive, and she must have lucked to have lived an extra decade, since she hasn’t bothered checking if she still had powerful enemies, or who was paying her bills, or what the hell happened to the guy who literally tried to blow her up. Her deep apathy means a huge part of the book consists of establishing that Lyra is in danger by having people try to impart on her just in how much danger she is (it doesn’t work and she keeps doing stupid shit), and that danger seems borne more out of Delamare also being apparently unable to ask his brilliant truth reader the right questions.
For all that Boneville’s kid is supposed to be the best alethiometer reader ever, ten years and no one in the Magisterium has been able to use the instrument to figure some stuff happened in the North? All those people obsessing about Lyra being Eve just died or forgot about her? No one tried to find out if the prophecy came true? No one tried to find if Asriel was really gone or could come back and stir some more trouble?
Never mind that three-book War against God, because no one seems to have survived it, or if they did, they were witches and bears and they kept to themselves and absolutely no one has gotten a memo about how both the Authority and the Regent were killed. I appreciate Pullman’s pessimism in having religion go on with its thing, trying to please a God that no longer lives, and get to a Heaven that has never existed, but it makes the entire His Dark Materials trilogy sort of pointless and weightless. I can understand wanting to make clear that sometimes it takes a lot more than one big action to unravel corrupt institutions, but I think most long-time fans of this world would have appreciated if the Church had become more truculent in reaction to all those events, or if the world was still grappling with the consequences of Asriel basically creating climate change in this Universe, or something. Any indication that the four previous books mattered would have been nice.
The Secret Commonwealth nevertheless relies on those ties to past characters and events we cared about, but it doesn’t deliver anything that made me feel invested. It teases a very interesting path with the idea of an underworld of humans who have no daemons, but it has too much going on to treat any of the characters with enough respect. They all become nothing more than helpers in Lyra’s journey, with the bonus that a lot of these people are presumably people of color and only serve to help Lyra, protect her, comfort her, or add to her personal growth.
While it’s great that we finally have some people of color in these books, I almost wish we didn’t. The political similes aren’t exactly subtle, not that I ever expect subtle from Pullman. But it’s extra insensitive to use the current refugee crisis as fodder for your fantasy book and explore it solely from the perspective of the white characters moving around their world. It’s especially distasteful because Malcolm also gets saved by a character of color, who then disappears, and because the only side characters the book cares enough about to assure us they are fine are descried as Danish.
I can only imagine Malcolm and Lyra (and some other white people, I’m guessing Allison will return) will save the Middle East because our white protagonists are reliving the tellings of this ancient poem about a very (non-white) special couple in love somewhere in Syria. So we can add cultural appropriation to how icky this whole story is turning out to be.
I imagine it’s only going to become more painful to read as they proceed to be the only ones able to save the livelihood of all of these brown people as they fight the Church and do something that will certainly make no difference whatsoever, just like Lord Asriel and Marisa killing God. And again, what is the point, really? Other than to write a treatise about corrupt power seeking to control that which threatens them. We know that this oil isn’t the only way to see Dust. Asriel had an emulsion, Mary found a resin. There are probably other ways, and the only people in danger in this story are the brown people being killed over this one stupid McGuffin, but most of these characters don’t get names or agency. In fact, an especially revolting part of the book puts Malcolm in a random theater full of people of color fighting the Church’s agents, and turns it into a hostage situation that is diffused by Malcolm killing their leader and running away. It was both absurd and incredibly bad white saviorism.
In fact, the book tries very hard to establish Malcolm as the guy we all (and Lyra) can’t help but love, and it Pullman goes about it in every nauseating way he could find. Malcolm being obsessed with Lyra since she was a baby? Check. Malcolm definitively being sexually attracted to Lyra when she was his fourteen year-old pupil? Check. Malcolm being an agent of Brytain government sent to fix unrest in the Middle East? Check. At least when Malcolm did stupid, “heroic” things in La Belle Sauvage like insist on taking Lyra back to her father because he was sure Asriel loved her after meeting the guy for five minutes, we could chalk it up to him being a child. The book does try to still make a big deal out of his bravery, never mind that Asriel promptly leaves Lyra back at Oxford and leaves for the North, or that the girl lives such a miserable life from then on she would probably have been better off with the fairies. But now we’re supposed to also believe Malcolm is made of such pure goodness that he will defeat the Church, save the characters that are not white enough to have perspectives, and deserve the girl he’s crushing on since she was a child.
I wish he at least had a rich world around him to distract me from how much I dislike him, as in La Belle Sauvage, which was at least a decent spy thriller with some genuinely good fantasy elements woven about. The Secret Commonwealth has too many elements, feels too loose and disconnected, and barely any of the supporting characters gets to make an impression.
Honestly, I can barely list which characters are not total bummers in The Secret Commonwealth. There is Hannah, who was a great addition to the story, as a female character that wasn’t lusted over, constantly referred to as beautiful, and was very important. Except, never mind, she does nothing here. She only existed in the first place to get our hero to become a spy. There is a new white woman who is basically the Serafina of this book, but without magic. There is a little girl of color who gets literally one scene before inexplicably showing up again when she’s done helping Pan find Lyra. There are bunch of white men who feel tenderness for Lyra, a couple of want to kill her over misunderstandings and a bunch of dangerous or cold or exotic brown men.
I read the original books when I was very young, and was only after rereading as an adult that I noticed how unevenly Pullman writes women (I don’t think there are even characters of color in those books, unless the Tartars are supposed to be Eskimos. There is a white, English shaman, though). I can’t accuse him of writing uninteresting or superficial female characters, surely, but let’s just say that the focus on Marisa’s and Serafina’s and other witches looks became creepy a lot quicker through my grown eyes. Even Mary’s biggest contribution to the story turns out to be in talking about how desire changed her life (and thus saved the Universe). I hoped that at least Lyra would escape this treatment in this book, and that Hannah could join her as a character that didn’t get defined by men desiring her. It was in vain, of course, and in the worst way, as Lyra goes from having parents who at the same time feared her, admired her, wanted to use her, and wanted to protect her to being gang-raped and brutalized, and having some more men who have … well, not the very complex plans about what they wish to do with her. It’s the second book in a row that ends with a violent sexual assault on its main young female character. Alice’s assault became nothing more than a detail in Malcolm’s story, a need to justify him killing someone. It’s used in the worst way to create lifelong trauma for one of the main male characters. I don’t even want to imagine how Pullman will use this one.
Can’t say I’m looking forward to the end of the trilogy.