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The Book of Dust, Book 2: The Secret Commonwealth

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
The Book of Dust, Book 2: The Secret Commonwealth Book Poster Image
Deeply philosophical fantasy for mature teens and adults.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Like the trilogy His Dark Materials, this book will give readers an idea of what theologians and philosophers ponder. Strict religious law butts up against the exercise of democracy and freedom of thought and expression. Also, politics, religion, and corporate greed mingle in a way that will make readers think about where this exists in our real world and how toxic it can become. A refugee crisis similar to real life also unfolds. A stanza from Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene concludes the book.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about how vital imagination is to humanity, and especially how fable, fantasy, and storytelling in various cultures allows us to see the deeper meaning in life and how humanity is all connected. Mutual suffering also connects people and builds empathy. Shows the danger of religious intolerance and the determination to fight against it and for the principles of democracy and for freedom of thought and expression. Shows a stark contrast between the dangers a young woman faces traveling alone and the relative ease a man faces in the same situation. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lyra needs the rude awakening of her daemon, Pan, leaving her in order to change. She slowly sees that she has lost something vital -- her imagination and connection to a deeper, more meaningful life. She's terribly lonely and despondent through much of the story, but determined to learn and find herself and her daemon again. Malcolm proves very capable as a spy and seeks out danger to gather information and save others.

Violence

Gang sexual assault with details of injuries while fighting attackers and probing fingers. Many die in various ways: assassination with swords (beheading too), the drowning of refugees, fire, bludgeoning, falling to death from exploded airship, and shot at close range with gun. People interrogated and imprisoned. Injuries including a broken nose. Talk of many killed in skirmishes.

Sex

Talk of Lyra in brief sexual relationships. A woman recalls a lesbian relationship from her younger days. Some rude gestures and innuendo.

Language

"F-k," especially during intense interrogations. Plus "bulls--t," "bastard," "damn," and "hell."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Many scenes of drinking (sherry, beer, wine, ale, hard liquor). Soldiers pass around hard liquor before a sexual assault. Many scenes of smoking (leaf, hookah, pipes), but not by main characters.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Secret Commonwealth is the second book in The Book of Dust trilogy and takes place, chronologically, nearly 20 years after the first Book of Dust, Belle Savage, and some seven years after the His Dark Materials trilogy. Lyra is a university student who must flee Cambridge suddenly and head to the Silk Road alone. Malcolm, a friend from the first book and now a spy, attempts to follow her. Expect more danger and death here than in the first Book of Dust. There's a gang sexual assault with details and injuries. Deaths occur frequently in various ways: assassination with swords (beheading too), the drowning of refugees, fire, bludgeoning, falling to death from exploded airship, and a shooting at close range with gun. People are imprisoned and interrogated -- and use the "f--k" frequently when this happens. Other mature content includes lots of smoking by less important characters and lots of drinking by everyone. Plus there are mentions of sexual relationships, straight and LGBTQ. The His Dark Materials trilogy was often banned or challenged from 2000-2009. Neither that series nor this one look kindly on the power-hungry religious order and none of the religious characters are ever the good guys. Readers can decide whether Philip Pullman's books promote atheism, as the ban attested, or accountability for those seeking power in religious offices. Or they can focus on The Secret Commonwealth's more intimate story of Lyra. She loses her imagination and tries to find that deeper connection to humanity again through the fables and stories people tell.

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What's the story?

In THE SECRET COMMONWEALTH, Lyra's daemon, Pan, goes out alone late one night and witnesses a murder. The dying man's daemon gives Pan his wallet with a key to a locker. When Lyra goes to the police station to turn it in, Pan recognizes one of the murderers as a police officer and they make a hasty retreat. So Lyra goes to the locker herself and retrieves a backpack from the locker. In it, there are botany notes about roses, a poem in Tajik, a journal about the man's travels to a secret factory, and the names and addresses of contacts all over Europe and the Silk Road. Slowly Lyra and the spies she shares the backpack with (including her very old friend Malcolm) piece together a connection between the murder and the desire of those from the clergy to acquire this information. At the same time, Lyra and Pan are constantly fighting, and late one night Pan leaves her. He says he's going out to look for her imagination. Lyra is despondent and flees Cambridge before the loss is noticed (only witches are fit to be seen without daemons). As she attempts to follow Pan, her travels across Europe also lead her closer to the mystery of the roses and the lost city where separated daemons go.

Is it any good?

Like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, this fantasy's mystical travel adventures and deeply philosophical themes combine for a brilliant storytelling experience for both teen and adult. Pullman himself has said he writes for both audiences at once. With Lyra at age 20 as the most important character, there are moments of rebellion and questioning and deep dissatisfaction with early adulthood that teens will relate to. Her loneliness in the world is palpable. When the story shifts to 31-year-old Malcolm, his fellow spies, refugees on boats, and the power-hungry clergy, adult readers will notice echoes of our current struggles in the world and Pullman's astute take on it all. At one point a conniving politician with closer ties to Lyra than she realizes waxes on about how to hide information. "We should delicately and subtly undermine the idea that truth and facts are possible in the first place. Once the people have become doubtful about the truth of anything, all kinds of things will be open to us."

As this book is sandwiched in the middle of the trilogy, its job is to build in conflict that drives the finale, and it does this well on many fronts. By the end of The Secret Commonwealth, the spies are adrift, innocents are arrested, the clergy is gaining power all over Europe, Lyra's enemies are many and waiting to pounce, and we know the significance of the roses and how hard it will be to reach them before the enemy does. Very little is resolved here and, after the last 30 pages, there's more worry for Lyra than ever before. This is one finale that will be very hard to wait for.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the many themes in The Secret Commonwealth, especially since these books are written for both kids and adults. What do you think was is the most important message of the story? 

  • Lyra and Malcolm have very different experiences traveling. Lyra is targeted as someone without her daemon and as a woman traveling alone. Malcolm rarely feels threatened. How is Lyra told to look and behave to keep from attracting the wrong kind of attention? Does Malcolm have to follow any special rules? What does Lyra carry to keep herself safe? Where in the real world is it safest and unsafest for women to travel alone? 

  • Will you read the final Book of Dust? What do you think will happen to the church? Will the main characters find each other? Who of the many characters introduced here will come back and play an important role in the story?

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