Book Review

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The Book of Dust, v2: The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman

This is another heavy volume, weighing in at 687 pages; although, that said, the hardback version is printed using a decent size font—11.5pt New Baskerville Std [fractions of points seems unnecessary to me, but I’m no typographer]—with a good line spacing, so the pages are very easy on the eye, and easy to read quickly: I was surprised at how quickly I was able to progress through it. Unexpectedly, this trilogy sandwich-filling does not follow chronologically from the previous, first, volume, reviewed here: we have jumped forward in time, leap-frogging over the events of the His Dark Materials trilogy, to a point where Lyra is now using the surname Silvertongue, which was given to her ten years previously by the polar bear king, Iorek Byrnison, instead of her previous name Belacqua, although she also subsequently adopts other pseudonyms as circumstances demand. She is a young woman of twenty, a student at Oxford, where she lived in her childhood, but studying at St Sophia’s college, rather than Jordan, which gave her sanctuary as a baby. The hero of the previous story, Malcolm Polstead, is now a scholar with a Doctorate, who teaches at Durham college, after having matriculated at Jordan college.

Lyra is initially unaware of this history, and her limited encounters with Malcolm, in his teaching capacity, have not hitherto been instinctively comfortable for Lyra; she is also somewhat estranged from her dæmon, Pantaleimon, at the beginning of the story, for what appears to be a variety of reasons, although the primary, and obviously most physically & mentally hurtful of those appears to be “that abominable betrayal … on the shores of the world of the dead, when she had abandoned Pan to go in search of her friend Roger. The guilt and shame would still be as fresh in her heart on the day she died, no matter how far away that was.” At the beginning of the story, on one of his solo nocturnal local expeditions, predominantly to escape the oppressive atmosphere between them, Pan observes a murder which, along with the startling realisation that other human beings are able to voluntarily separate from their dæmons, sets in train a series of events which take Pan, Lyra and Malcolm on separate but almost equally perilous journeys to far-flung locations, trying to avoid not only death, but also capture by the ever-present, and increasingly powerful Magisterium.

The Secret Commonwealth of the book’s title is the liminal world of the imagination; a world which children can perceive or imagine, and which adults tend to forget or disregard as they mature, but the premise of the story is that it can exist if you believe it can: according to one of Lyra’s trusted friends, a Gyptian by the name of Giorgio Brabandt, it is “The world of the fairies, and the ghosts, and the jacky lanterns.” Imagination is one facility which Pan thinks Lyra has lost, mainly as a result of her recent reading of books which praise rationality above what cannot be proved scientifically, so his main purpose in journeying afar is to retrieve Lyra’s lost imagination, as if it is a faculty with a physical manifestation. The history of the Magisterium is also given in the book, and it bears similarities with the Christian religion as we know it, but it is also significantly different: it is as if The Inquisition was able to become permanently institutionalised, and The Magisterium is Pullman’s not-so-subtle allegory of The Inquisition, with all the iniquity it embodied.

As usual, Pullman demonstrates the breadth of his knowledge, but also his compassion for humanity, especially the plight of refugees—no less distressing now than it has ever been—and using Lyra’s inner voice, he says: “Aisha in the company of others like her, moving laboriously westwards in the hope of refuge, hungry, cold, robbed of the little she had. … being turned away from house after house, begging for shelter on a winter night. But people were better than that, surely? Wasn’t the human race better than that?” The acknowledgments at the end include, in addition to the usual thanks to the team members & friends who have helped in the realisation of the book, a touching mention of one of the characters in this story, whose name, Nur Huda el-Wahabi, is that of a real person, and is used as a memorial to his loss in the Grenfell Tower fire. The cliffhanger at the end of this volume is not unduly distressing, thankfully, but it it sufficiently intriguing to retain interest in the overall story arc [for this reader, anyway]; this is not a book for children, however: young adult at the very least. A quote from the dust-jacket of the book [no pun intended] is worth giving here, because I think it is accurate: “It is a powerful adventure and a thought-provoking look at what it is to understand yourself, to grow up and make sense of the world around you.” The hardback I read was published in 2019 by David Fickling Books, London, ISBN 978-0-241-37333-0. A trade paperback is also available: ISBN 978-0-241-37334-7.

Book Review

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La Belle Sauvage [The Book of Dust, Volume One], by Philip Pullman

The Belle Sauvage in the book’s title is a canoe, owned by the hero [a designation which can be given without reservation, which the book will reveal], Malcolm Polstead; interestingly, I don’t remember reading how the canoe acquired that name: perhaps this will be revealed in the next instalment of the trilogy, for this book is the first of three which form a prequel to the highly successful His Dark Materials trilogy [HDM] by the same author. They are ostensibly children’s books, but many adults [of which I am not ashamed to admit I am one] have also read & enjoyed them: I like to think that they broadened my daughters’ minds, for they are both avid readers. Philip Pullman is acknowledged to be an important modern critical thinker, and his books have won awards too numerous to mention, including the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for The Amber Spyglass, the third in HDM: the first time that award has been given to a children’s book; the trilogy has also been translated to the big screen—debatably successfully—and to television, by the BBC, much more accurately and, consequently, successfully.

Given that, as previously stated, this is a prequel, some of the characters & locations will be known to those familiar with the alternate world which Pullman has created. The timeframe is now, approximately, and the setting initially Britain; specifically Oxford & its environs; but the technology is slightly different; or, at least, its terminology is: there are Zeppelins for long-distance air travel, but also gyrocopters, and there does appear to be internal combustion available for small vehicles, but electrical power is referred to as anbaric. Not Steampunk specifically, but different enough to be noticeable: if you accept the concept of parallel or adjacent universes, this one is only one or two steps removed. The main protagonist in HDM, a young girl named Lyra, is here introduced to us as a baby, who is entrusted to the care of nuns at a nearby priory, Godstow, because she is in need of special protection: primarily from the ruling religious authorities, which exert a near-total control over the country’s moral development. This is a relatively recent manifestation, but the observance of Christianity is now being inexorably enforced; one of the aspirations of the authorities in this mission is the suppression of research into any areas of science which might contradict Christian dogma.

Lyra’s parents are either unable, or unwilling to participate in her upbringing, but they are both aware of her potential to upset what is regarded by the authorities as the natural order; there is no risk of plot spoilers for new readers of HDM, because this parentage is revealed quite early in the trilogy. Her father is Lord Asriel, a rich explorer who is convinced that there is some unifying force which can explain the functioning of the universe, and he is relentlessly searching for it: a quest which he knows cannot include a baby, however much he might like to spend time with her. Lyra’s mother, however, has no maternal instincts, but she has been made aware of Lyra’s potential, so she sets out to reclaim the child. Mrs Coulter’s husband was killed by Lord Asriel, but the circumstances were such that the latter was not held responsible for the death, so he is free to pursue his quest.

Eleven-year-old Malcolm, the son of the proprietors of The Trout pub in Port Meadow, a village three miles outside Oxford, opposite the priory by the Thames, helps out at the priory, as well as working for his parents. He learns about the arrival of Lyra, and is instantly smitten: this might seem strange for a young boy, but he is obviously sensitive, as well as being very practical. One aspect of this world hitherto unmentioned is that all human beings have physical familiars of the opposite gender, referred to as dæmons: they serve many functions, but they always stay in close proximity to their owners, primarily because physical separation is painful. Children’s dæmons can take any form, albeit youthful, until they become fixed; after puberty, if I remember correctly. Malcolm’s dæmon, Asta, forms an instant rapport with Pantaleimon, Lyra’s dæmon, which is helpful for the later events. The action of the narrative is Malcolm’s escape from Port Meadow when a disastrous flood [whose proportions could be described, ironically, as biblical] destroys the priory and threatens Lyra’s safety, so he decides to head for London to find Lord Asriel, taking with him Alice, a fifteen-year-old girl who also works for Malcolm’s parents.

Luckily for the three passengers, La Belle Sauvage has been upgraded somewhat after Malcolm lent it to Lord Asriel for a few days, so it is better able to withstand the foul weather & onslaught of not only the flood on its journey, but also the trio’s pursuers. Although this first volume is 546 pages [and this makes a heavy hardback, not ideally conducive to bedtime reading!] it is very easy to read: not only because the prose is well written, but also because the font & line-spacing is just right for the page size. This hardback was published in 2017 by David Fickling Books, Oxford, in association with Penguin Books, London, ISBN 978-0-385-60441-3 [a trade paperback is also available, ISBN 978-0-857-56108-4]. Admittedly, this type of material might not be to everybody’s taste, but this is one of the few fantasy genres I can accommodate, so I will certainly be keeping my eyes open for the next book in this trilogy.