I had mixed feelings about the second volume of The Book of Dust. I liked it a lot better than the yawn-worthy La Belle Sauvage (sorry Mr Pullman) but it’s not in the same league as the fantastic His Dark Materials trilogy.
Lyra is twenty in this story and a student at Oxford University when she gets drawn into a quest involving daemons and at the same time the Magisterium are after her. There isn’t much I can say about the plot without spoilers but there’s a lot of travel involved, violent scenes involving religious fanatics and secret police, a folklore theme and a large cast of characters. Too many characters, I think, some of them introduced towards the end (which is something that I really dislike in a book). The other annoying thing was that information was repeated several times, as the main characters explained their quests to various others. I feel that the book could have been shorter and tighter, with the unnecessary bits removed. However, there were many moments I enjoyed and generally I wanted to keep on reading. Some very intriguing concepts were introduced, which I assume will be further explored in the next volume.
I found it difficult to connect with Lyra in this story, as she is somewhat changed (compared to in His Dark Materials) – not only has she lost her sparkiness, she is now very well-educated and even speaks semi-formally. I didn’t quite believe she was the same character. Finally, another problematic issue is the readership. The main characters are adults and there is a more adult tone to the book than La Belle Sauvage and its predecessors, with even some use of the f-word. I feel that it’s aimed at adult readers, maybe those who, like me, grew up reading the adventures of the young Lyra, which are well-known as ‘crossover’ books – categorised as YA but appreciated by adults too. Yet I feel that The Secret Commonwealth ought to be more accessible to younger readers. There is too much political intrigue and philosophising; had I read the book as a teen, I would have found it difficult.
In summary, this book was worth reading and I’m glad I did, but I’m not exactly blown away by the experience.
First published in 2019.