The Secret Commonwealth

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The Secret Commonwealth
The Secret Commonwealth.jpg
AuthorPhilip Pullman
LanguageEnglish
SeriesThe Book of Dust
Release number
2
GenreFantasy
Publication date
3 October 2019
Preceded byLa Belle Sauvage 

The Secret Commonwealth is a fantasy novel by Philip Pullman published in 2019; it is the second volume in a planned trilogy named The Book of Dust. Set 20 years after the first volume, La Belle Sauvage, and seven years after the end of The Amber Spyglass, the novel follows Lyra Silvertongue as an undergraduate and Malcolm Polstead as a young fellow at Jordan College, Oxford.

Setting[edit]

The setting is a world dominated by the Magisterium (commonly called "the Church"), an international theocracy which actively suppresses heresy. In this world, humans' souls naturally exist outside of their bodies in the form of sentient "dæmons" in animal form which accompany, aid, and comfort their humans. An important plot device is the alethiometer, or symbol reader, of which just six are known to exist in Lyra's world. By setting three of the alethiometer's hands to point to symbols around a dial, a skilled practitioner can pose questions, which are answered by the movement around the dial of a fourth hand.

Plot[edit]

Seven years following the events of The Amber Spyglass, Lyra Belacqua, now going by Lyra Silvertongue, is a student at Oxford, where she studies the alethiometer. Malcolm Polstead, now a doctor and professor at the university, is one of her instructors, though she is not aware of his role in saving her life as an infant during the events of La Belle Sauvage 20 years earlier.

The relationship between Lyra and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, has been severely strained over the past few months as Lyra has come to admire the works of prominent philosophers, currently gaining popularity throughout Europe, who assert that rationality is the only proper way to understand the universe, and further that dæmons are a shared delusion of humans without real substance. Lyra and Pantalaimon gained the ability to separate from one another during the events of The Amber Spyglass, and due to their recent frequent quarrels, Pantalaimon has taken to roaming freely through the countryside at night without Lyra.

During one of these nightly excursions, Pantalaimon witnesses a man being ambushed and killed by the riverbank. The attackers search for a package the man was supposed to be carrying, but are unsuccessful. Just before the man dies, his dæmon flies far from him to where Pantalaimon is lying hidden, to ask him to take the man's wallet and help him complete his mission. Pantalaimon is shocked that the man and his dæmon can also separate from each other. Soon after, the man and his dæmon die from their injuries.

Pantalaimon takes the wallet back to Lyra, where the two find it contains a ticket to a left luggage locker at the post office. They retrieve a rucksack from the locker, which contains numerous plant seeds and samples, a book of names and addresses, and the murdered man's diary. The diary details an expedition the man took to a mysterious building in the middle of a deep desert. Dæmons cannot pass through this desert, requiring the man and those in his party to separate from their dæmons, a horribly painful process. The building is of supreme importance for the growth of a special strain of roses, the oil of which has numerous medicinal properties, including granting the ability to see Dust. For this reason, control of the roses is sought by both a range of powerful pharmaceutical companies and the Magisterium, who regard the existence of Dust as heresy. As recorded in the diary, a dying member of the man's party is successful in gaining entry to the mysterious building, but the rest of the group is turned away.

Lyra becomes aware that agents of the Magisterium, including the two murderers Pantalaimon saw, are actively seeking the murdered man's rucksack. She is summoned to the office of the new Master of the college (the previous Master having just died of old age), where she is shocked to learn the fund set aside for her living expenses years earlier is almost gone. She is allowed to finish out her studies at the university but forced to vacate her living quarters and forbidden from associating with the Scholars of the college on equal terms, as she has been able to her entire life.

Distraught, she confides in the former head steward of her college, revealed to be Malcolm's childhood friend Alice. Alice and Malcolm finally reveal the story of her journey to Oxford during the historic floods 20 years earlier and their roles in keeping her safe. They return to find her apartment ransacked and the rucksack stolen; however, Lyra had already swapped the contents out to keep them safe.

Lyra and Pantalaimon, already barely on speaking terms, have an emotional argument when Pantalaimon reveals he recognised one of the names in the dead man's book but did not tell her. Pantalaimon reiterates that he believes Lyra's admiration of rational scholars has deadened her curiosity and enthusiasm for life, and Lyra angrily refutes his arguments by scorning all appeal to emotion. When she awakens in the morning, Pantalaimon has gone, leaving a note reading “GONE TO FIND YOUR IMAGINATION.”

Mortified by the desertion, and now unable to move around easily in public due to the intense superstitious fear directed towards anyone without a dæmon, Lyra seeks sanctuary with the Gyptians and meets with her old friend Farder Coram. He, like Malcolm, is an agent of Oakley Street, a quasi-secret organisation that counters the influence of the Magisterium. He gives her money and arranges discreet passage out of the country just as Magisterium forces descend upon the Gyptian camp.

Lyra begins to make her way across Europe towards the Middle East in an attempt to find Pantalaimon, whom she thinks may be trying to reach “the Blue Hotel,” a ruined city in the desert referenced in the murdered man's diary said to be inhabited by dæmons who have been separated from their humans. At the same time, Malcolm is dispatched by Oakley Street to find out more about the mysterious roses that only grow in the desert referenced in the diary. Rose growers of any kind, even those growing “normal” roses, are being terrorised and murdered by mysterious attackers from the mountains, driving increasing numbers of refugees west into Europe. Oakley Street believes the Magisterium may be connected.

As this is unfolding, Marcel Delamare, an ambitious young cardinal in the Magisterium and brother of Lyra's mother Marisa Coulter, has been moving to consolidate Magisterial power into a ruling council, of which he is a member. Soon after its formation and the election of its first President, the President is publicly assassinated in Constantinople, clearing the way for Delamare to seize power himself. Throughout, he has been obsessively hunting Lyra and is revealed to be the mastermind of her partial expulsion from Oxford, as he blames her for the death of his sister. He is aided by Oliver Bonneville, son of Gerard Bonneville, a brilliant young scholar who has developed a new way to read the alethiometer without the cumbersome reference books usually required. The use of this new method can yield very specific results, at the cost of intense physical discomfort and nausea. He deserts Delamare and slips out of the country in pursuit of Pantalaimon, who is more easily tracked by the new reading method.

Pantalaimon, through many difficulties, reaches the home town of the author of one of the books of reason Lyra has become fascinated with. He berates the author, who lives as a shut-in and has a strangely cold, distant relationship with his dæmon, and demands that the author return Lyra's imagination to her. He is largely ignored and leaves frustrated and disturbed. As he attempts to reach transportation out of the city, he is caught by Bonneville. However, Bonneville himself is immediately arrested by agents of the Magisterium, having absconded with Delamare's alethiometer. Bonneville is able to bluff his way out of captivity, but Pantalaimon escapes. Bonneville resolves to pursue and kill Malcolm instead, having learned that he was the one who killed Bonneville's father 20 years earlier. He catches up with Malcolm in Constantinople but is disarmed and defeated by Malcolm instead. Malcolm lies and insists that Gerard Bonneville died in the flood, and warns the younger Bonneville that he will kill him if he sees him again. Bonneville, now unsure of his vendetta against Malcolm, sets out to track down and kill Lyra.

Lyra, travelling with great difficulty due to her lack of dæmon, eventually reaches Prague, following an address listed with one of the names in the dead man's book. This leads her to a bookseller who is sheltering a man partially made out of living fire, the result of an experiment carried out by his father, an alchemist and sorcerer. His dæmon was transformed into living water by the same experiment, leaving them permanently unable to touch. His dæmon was subsequently stolen by his father, and the man pleads for Lyra's help recovering her. They track the alchemist down with the help of Lyra's book of addresses, and the man and his dæmon are reunited, causing both of them to be destroyed. The alchemist reveals he had planned all of this from the beginning and needed the lethal burst of energy from their reunion to power one of his experiments. Horrified and reeling from the strangeness of this episode, Lyra angrily berates the alchemist for his cruelty and indifference, but he speaks to her enigmatically, revealing himself to have been the man's father, and advises her to travel south towards Syria to find her dæmon again.

Lyra travels further and further south towards the deserts of Syria, finding more and more refugees of the mysterious war being waged against rose growers everywhere. She encounters many more people without dæmons, like herself, finding that many are used as a slave labour caste due to their low social position. As she travels through Turkey, she is nearly gang-raped by a group of soldiers, though she is saved by her own strength and the intervention of the soldiers’ commanding officer.

Arriving at last in a city near the edge of the desert, she discovers a secret black market selling separated dæmons to humans in need of them, to allow them to pass in normal society. The author Pantalaimon visited is revealed as one of the clients, explaining his strange relationship with his dæmon. Lyra locates a guide willing to take her to the dead city in the desert where separated dæmons are said to reside. Arriving at the ruins, Lyra enters alone. Bonneville, who has tracked her, is stopped from killing her by Lyra's guide, who tells him that Lyra will lead them both to an unspecified treasure of incredible value.

Publication history[edit]

At the launch of La Belle Sauvage, Pullman announced that it was complete[1] and said that he hoped it would be out a year later.[2] The Secret Commonwealth takes its title from a compilation of folklore by Robert Kirk that Pullman has said is one of his favourite books.[3]

In February 2019, Penguin Books announced that the book would be published on 3 October 2019.[4]

An illustrated extract from the novel was published in The Guardian newspaper in June 2019.[5]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Flood, Alison (19 October 2017). "Philip Pullman launches La Belle Sauvage and says sequel is finished". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077.
  2. ^ Ho, Olivia (24 October 2017). "His Dark Materials universe draws Philip Pullman back for new trilogy". The Straits Times.
  3. ^ Elmhirst, Sophie (12 October 2017). "Philip Pullman Returns to His Fantasy World". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.
  4. ^ "Philip Pullman announces new book The Secret Commonwealth". Penguin Books. 26 February 2019. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
  5. ^ "What Lyra did next: an exclusive extract from Philip Pullman's new novel The Secret Commonwealth". The Guardian. 10 June 2019.