This post contains spoilers for every volume in His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of my life’s most enduring obsessions. The Amber Spyglass in particular has an awful lot to answer for when it comes to my future career choices (damn you, Pullman, if you’d just let Lyra and Will stay together, I could have my student loans paid off by now).
So you can imagine how excited I was when I learned that Pullman was planning to revisit his best-known work in a new “equel” trilogy called The Book of Dust. Or maybe you can’t imagine, because the answer was “not very.”
See, I get invested in the stories I love, but I’ve never been the kind of fan who constantly needs new content to keep my attention from wandering. I’ve always believed that when something is finished, it should be left alone, lest later installments tarnish the memory of the original. And in recent years, franchise after franchise after franchise has proven me right, with the rare exceptions–like The Heroes of Olympus and The Last King of Osten Ard–coming more as pleasant surprises than anything else.
When La Belle Sauvage, the first installment in The Book of Dust, came out in 2017, it lived up to my mixed expectations. The book centered on two supremely lovable new characters, but wasted time with fan-service cameos from the original trilogy. Its two halves–a tense spy thriller set at a riverside pub, and a mystical, symbolic river journey–were each great on their own, but didn’t fit naturally together at all. The villain was effectively frightening, but the book didn’t give any reason for his actions. And perhaps most damning of all, it didn’t feel like it added anything to His Dark Materials.
That said, with some distance, I’ve learned to appreciate La Belle Sauvage more. If I forget that it’s supposed to be connected to His Dark Materials and approach it as Pullman trying his hand at writing a fairy tale, it’s far more enjoyable. It was using that approach that I walked out of Powell’s with a copy of the second installment, The Secret Commonwealth, and a sense of cautious optimism.
Turns out that was exactly the right attitude. I tore through the 600+ pages of The Secret Commonwealth in a weekend, relishing almost every one, yet by the end was left frustrated, confused, and more than a little sickened. Now I’ve turned to the blank digital page to work out my feelings about this hair-tearingly inconsistent book.
Before I begin, let me warn you that this post will discuss sexual assault and related tropes that might be upsetting (as does the book itself).
Also, I will be spoiling The Secret Commonwealth and all its predecessors here. If you learn the ending of any of the five books from this post, it’s your own damn fault. Let’s dive in.
5 things I loved
1. Further exploration of daemons
If Philip Pullman is remembered for only one thing, it will be daemons. His best idea–giving each character a bonded animal companion that is at once a part of them and a separate entity–not only defines his series but has taken on a life outside of it. Daemons are an excellent alternative to “spirit animal” that avoids cultural appropriation, and are a popular fanfic trope, seen in works like Welcome to Night Vale crossover “He Says He Is An Experimental Theologian.”
The original trilogy explores the reality of daemons to some extent, but mostly as a metaphor for growing up. In The Secret Commonwealth, we get a lot more mileage out of daemons as both metaphors and real social phenomena. What does it mean, for example, if a person doesn’t get along with their daemon, something which never happened in His Dark Materials?
This last question kicks off the entire plot of the latest book. Seven years after the end of The Amber Spyglass, Lyra is now 20 years old, studying at Oxford instead of just being underfoot in the kitchens. Like too many undergraduates, she is–as a Redditor brilliantly puts it–“going through an Ayn Rand phase.” She’s been so influenced by a smug, trendy rationalist movement that she’s in danger of starting her own YouTube channel (“Lyra Silvertongue DESTROYS a fundie with FACTS and LOGIC”), and Pantalaimon can’t stand her anymore. Convinced she’s under a spell, he sets out to find a cure, leaving Lyra alone.
Though there’s plenty of detours into Magisterium politics, secret agent follies, and world-destroying essential oils, Lyra’s quest to reunite with Pan is the central thread of The Secret Commonwealth. As she travels across Europe and Asia in search of a rumored sanctuary for misfit daemons, she meets others who have lost theirs, each one forming a different heartbreaking metaphor for the ways we can be at odds with ourselves. One woman’s daemon fell in love with someone she couldn’t stand. Another man’s was transformed into something that would utterly destroy him. Several people have literally sold their daemons in exchange for physical subsistence, in a metaphor any professor of Marxist studies could teach a whole semester on.
It’s a fascinating series of beats. However much we can debate whether The Book of Dust needed to be written, one thing nobody can dispute is how much mileage remains in the concept of daemons.
2. The new villains
As I mentioned above, I found villain Gerard Bonneville to be one of the weakest aspects of La Belle Sauvage.
He was definitely scary: a snarling, relentless, nigh-unkillable madman, the hate child of the T-1000 and Reverend Harry Powell. What he wasn’t was believable or interesting. His only motivation was a rabid desire to get his hands on baby Lyra, for no clear reason, and his only hobby appeared to be rape. By the time Malcolm kills him in a dramatic confrontation at a flooded cemetery, we don’t know any more than we did at the start about what this guy’s deal is.
The Secret Commonwealth introduces two new villains: Bonneville’s son Olivier, an ambitious Magisterium lackey who matches Lyra’s skill with the alethiometer, and Marcel Delamare, Lyra’s uncle, who consolidates his power in the church while dealing with severe mother issues.
Neither one is that scary–Olivier is kind of a doofus, reminiscent of Prince Zuko’s early years, while Delamare never even meets any of the protagonists–but they do feel much more appropriate for their surroundings.
One of my favorite tropes is when a long-running series, realizing that it can’t keep upping the stakes forever, changes things up with a more intimate, worldly, petty threat (Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney is one of my favorite examples of this). After all, Lyra has fought armored polar bears, ghosts that eat your soul, witches, angels, and there was that one time she helped assassinate God. No human, no matter how stabby he gets, is ever going to measure up.
The Secret Commonwealth understands that it’s a much more earthbound story. It’s about a broken person trying to find out if she can ever be whole again. A book like that demands antagonists who are driven by prosaic concerns, and so, Olivier provides none of the jarring tonal dissonance we got from his dad.
3. Inching away from rationalism
It’s easy to see why Pullman decided to revisit the world of His Dark Materials. It’s not because he needed the money, or missed being on the bestseller list.
As The Secret Commonwealth makes clear, it’s because he saw readers taking His Dark Materials the wrong way. Readers took his fiery denunciation of organized religion to mean that they should abandon all faith and imagination and trust nothing but logic and reason.
One of the books responsible for stealing Lyra’s imagination is a thinly-veiled version of His Dark Materials itself: an epic saga that culminates in the protagonist killing God. Unlike with the real books, though, there aren’t any good intentions here. It’s as though Pullman has conjured in fiction the book he’s afraid he accidentally wrote in real life. The novel-within-the-novel The Hyperchorasmians renounces metaphor, condemns art, and does its best to show real-world readers how absurd a work of total logic would be (its in-universe author is in due course revealed to be a whimpering fraud).
Pullman is clearly a man with a great appreciation for the emotional, mythical, and irrational, up to and including the faeries and ghasts of the titular secret commonwealth, who can only be seen out of the corner of one’s eye. Over the years, he must have become immensely frustrated by fans “thanking” him for opening their eyes to the folly of everything but reason. Having famously attacked organized religion, he’s now wheeling around to pick a fight with its opposite–which it’s clear he holds in equal contempt.
4. Mental health representation
One of my favorite genres of fanfiction is stories about how the characters in an epic saga are doing, several years after that saga concludes. They’re usually getting along all right, but still scarred, marked by what they went through in ways they’re still working out how to live with.
The Secret Commonwealth is essentially a canon version of this, and it’s on this level that it works best. Lyra is extremely not OK from the very first page, even before Pan leaves her. She’s able to show flashes of her old self, especially when somebody else needs help, but on the inside, she’s feeling adrift, directionless, and confused. As hard as she’s tried to get over Will, she still hasn’t managed it, and as her feud with Pan makes clear, Lyra’s at the point of hating herself–she feels as though she should have become something better after her adventure across the multiverse, but has experienced a failure to launch. Who can’t relate?
The central metaphor of the book, that of going on a long journey to rediscover a missing part of yourself, lands beautifully–helped, of course, by the endlessly resonant metaphor of daemons. The regret and inner conflict that Lyra and Pan experience leaps from every page they’re on, to the point where it becomes oppressive, though not in a bad way. This is a book about quietly desperate people trying to understand how things changed so quickly.
In my opinion, this is what really makes a book “adult”: not gratuitous violence or sexual assault, but the acknowledgement that happy endings aren’t endings.
5. The refugee crisis
One thing I didn’t expect, but was excited to see, was Philip Pullman tackling Europe’s defining cultural issue of the last five years: their treatment of African and Middle Eastern refugees.
Of course, this being a parallel reality, things are a bit different. The cause of the crisis is simplified: instead of a complex melange of climate change, colonialism, and extremism, Pullman’s crisis is caused by the Magisterium secretly funding a Daesh-like organization to destroy rose gardens and kill growers. Much like the real crisis, it affects all levels of Syrian and Levantine society.
Lyra, who’s traveling the opposite direction of the tide of refugees, runs into them several times, and every time is forced to reckon with her powerlessness. She takes the opportunity to help the one little girl she can, an act of kindness that reverberates throughout the rest of the book, even while it forces questions I never thought this book would make me contemplate.
As we learned from La Belle Sauvage, Lyra herself was once a refugee in a boat. For much of her life after, though, she’s been extremely privileged. However, does it invalidate her suffering that other people are suffering much worse? How do we value the mental and spiritual anguish of a first-world citizen against the mental, spiritual, and physical anguish of the displaced peoples? How can we create a value system that empathizes with both, without diminishing the greater pain of the refugees?
The Secret Commonwealth offers no easy answers. Neither does life. Once again, this is the correct way to guide a universe from childhood to adulthood.
5 Things I Did Not Love
1. The gang rape scene
Now let’s talk about how not to do that.
There’s no sugar-coating this part. The third-to-last chapter, “Little Stick,” left such an acrid taste in my mouth that I’ll never be able to imagine this book without remembering it. There’s no excuse for this scene. It’s going to baffle and enrage me for a long time.
I’m already committed to spoilers, so I’ll come out and say it: in this chapter, Lyra is groped and nearly gang-raped by a group of Turkish soldiers in a train car. The actual rape does not occur, as Lyra fights back long enough to be rescued by the soldiers’ superior officer.
But that’s immaterial. It’s still assault. And it’s still incredibly unnecessary.
You could remove this scene entirely without losing anything from the plot–its only purpose is to give Lyra a chance to use the Gyptian weapon she was given earlier, which could have been employed in any number of better ways.
Why the hell is this in here? Did Pullman think nobody would believe his book was for adults if he didn’t include a graphic sexual assault? Or did he just think he needed an action scene before the ending? I can’t possibly imagine the author of The Amber Spyglass believing either of these things, but I literally have no other answers.
This isn’t the first time The Book of Dust has done this, either. The climax of La Belle Sauvage also involves rape, this time an assault on Alice by Gerard Bonneville. Again, there’s no reason for it, and again, it’s insanely gratuitous.
Male authors, no matter how distinguished: just stop using rape, or attempted rape, to increase the drama. We’ve lost that privilege. It’s gross, it’s lazy, it co-opts female voices, and it never accomplishes anything. Stop.
2. Everything about Malcolm
Malcolm Polstead was the best thing about La Belle Sauvage. In a prequel often dragged down by references to the original trilogy, here was a fresh face at the heart of everything: inquisitive, devoted, brave when he needed to be, frequently clever. His ability to implicitly trust people was presented as strength of character rather than naive bumpkinhood. As an ordinary English boy caught up in an extraordinary situation, he couldn’t have been more likable.
In retrospect, though, the signs of trouble were there. Malcolm didn’t really have any flaws. He was beloved by everyone except sinister villains, always equal to every task, and surprisingly capable of fighting fully-grown men.
In The Secret Commonwealth, this has only gotten worse. Malcolm is now a professor of history at Oxford who moonlights as a secret agent. He’s able to separate from his daemon, Asta, but unlike Lyra and Pan, this doesn’t seem to have caused them any problems whatsoever, and they still get along famously. He can row a yacht across Lake Geneva without getting winded, flawlessly interrogate a mark, shrug off knife and bullet wounds, turn the tables on someone who’s following him, and break a man’s neck in less than a second. He has a magic aurora in his head that tells him what to do next.
What I’m getting at is that Malcolm is too damn perfect, and it makes him a bit dull to read about. He has no flaws like Lyra’s impetuousness, Will’s social anxiety, Iorek Byrnison’s self-pity, or Pan’s tendency to be a condescending prat.
To be fair, Pullman has created other characters that run this risk. Both Lee Scoresby and Mary Malone from His Dark Materials could be accused of being unrealistically perfect.
The difference, though, is that they were both interesting. Lee is a devil-may-care Han Solo type that fits perfectly with the flavor of the universe, and Mary is intimately connected to the original trilogy’s myth arc. Malcolm is just an amazing guy who runs around beating up fools on what amounts to a sidequest.
None of this is helped by how obviously he’s being set up as Lyra’s second love interest. Malcolm’s only “flaw” in The Secret Commonwealth is that he’s in love with Lyra, but since she appears to be falling for him too–and a character all-but verbatim says that a 12-year age difference is not weird if they’re both adults–this doesn’t appear to be a flaw at all (never mind the enormously strange power imbalance involved in wanting to bone down on a former student you’ve known since she was a literal baby).
Maybe Pullman thought we’d never accept Lyra paired with anybody but Will unless he was the perfect man. That’s possible. But I wish he’d spent less time setting up how great Malcolm is and more time actually making sure the two have chemistry. As it is, I’m starting to get Anthony Caine flashbacks.
3. Lyra’s lack of agency
This is a very difficult one to complain about, because it’s the other side of the coin to one of my favorite parts of the book–the portrayal of Lyra’s “melancholy.”
But a huge issue I had with the mental health themes in this book was the equation of depression with helplessness. It’s great to portray a character struggling with her own mind. It’s even better to reify that struggle into a physical journey. Where Pullman falters is in deciding that Lyra won’t be able to handle that journey without being repeatedly bailed out by other people.
From the time she sets off from Oxford to her arrival at what is probably the Blue Hotel, I can think of maybe three things Lyra does entirely for herself. Other than that, episodes in her adventure tend to follow a formula: she goes to a new place, gets into some kind of trouble, gets bailed out by either an Oakley Street agent or somebody else who doesn’t have a daemon, gets directions from this person to her next destination, and keeps moving.
Again, it’s hard to be certain whether this is a bug or a feature, as part of Lyra’s arc in this book is about letting herself trust hunches and rely on providence. But neither that nor her depression require her to be so passive. Where’s the Lyra who once deceived an armored bear? Who broke into a lord’s mansion to steal back her alethiometer? Who led the exodus from Bolvangar? Who cut open the Authority’s tomb?
It’s only natural that Lyra’s changed. But melancholy doesn’t erase everything about who a person is. Lyra is the character that first taught my young self that girls could be badass–even leaving aside the horrible “Little Stick” scene, it’s sad that she doesn’t get more to do.
4. The side characters
The supporting characters in His Dark Materials are all-time greats in children’s literature. Lord Asriel. Mrs. Coulter. Lee Scoresby. Iorek Byrnison. Serafina Pekkala. Farder Coram. Mary Malone.
The Book of Dust hasn’t yet given us anybody who can match these people. Instead, as Sarah McCarry writes on Tor.com, we get a parade of “practically interchangeable academics and administrators with sensible haircuts.”
She’s referring to the women there, but the men are almost as dull. And the ones with character, like Gottfried Brande or the furnace man, are usually gone within one chapter. Even the few recurring characters, like Coram and Ma Costa, seem to have had the life sucked out of them. It’s a severe disappointment.
5. There is no ending
I don’t mean “the ending is ambiguous.” I don’t mean “it ends on a cliffhanger.” I mean “it literally ends in the middle of the manuscript.” Nothing that’s set up is resolved, no new information comes to light, there’s no sense of a climax or turning point. The Secret Commonwealth does the literary equivalent of cutting to black in the middle of a scene.
I’m aware that The Book of Dust, like its name implies, was originally written as a single volume, and I sympathize with Pullman and his editors not being able to find a natural cutoff point. But as an armchair commentator, I think he should have just written the whole thing and published a 1,200 page novel. I still would have bought it.
The Subtle Knife ended on a cliffhanger as well, with Will’s father dead and Lyra in the clutches of Mrs. Coulter. But plenty of plot threads, including Will’s bleeding hand, were tied off, and Scoresby’s death provided dramatic closure. My hope is that, like that volume, The Secret Commonwealth is concerned with putting all the pieces in place for everything to go completely bonkers in book three. Right now, The Book of Dust could use a little bit more bonkers.
I’m sure I’m being unfairly demanding here.
His Dark Materials is an absolute masterwork, an all-time great: at once wildly imaginative and tightly controlled, a feat of worldbuilding, its message married as perfectly to its action as a human to their daemon. Its protagonists explore a dozen universes, witness the most enormous set-piece battle in written fantasy, upend the politics of heaven, redefine the nature of death, and ultimately save the entire multiverse by making out. Perhaps it’s unreasonable for me to assume any author could align the planets like that more than once in their lifetime.
I do understand why Pullman thought he had to write The Book of Dust: he had more to say, which is the only reason anybody should ever write a sequel or a prequel or an equel or whatever. But the amount of unforced errors made in the first two books is just aggravating, and it’s making me worry that one of my all-time favorite authors has lost his muse.
There’s so much greatness in La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth, but it feels like it’s tied to lead weights. And foremost (and this can’t be said enough times) is the reliance on sexual violence against women at every climactic moment, which has changed my entire opinion of this trilogy from cautious excitement to conflicted emotional distance.
I will read the third volume, whenever it comes out. But I will request that it have no rape scenes, turn the Malcolm knob from a 10 to a 6 and the Lyra knob from a 2 to a 7, include a more exciting supporting cast (sorry, Bud Schlesinger, whoever the hell you are), and provide some kind of resolution. Otherwise, I’ll have to settle for rereading His Dark Materials, and remembering when Philip Pullman knew what being an adult actually means.