A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
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.
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
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 & Scariness
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.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Talk of Lyra in brief sexual relationships. A woman recalls a lesbian relationship from her younger days. Some rude gestures and innuendo.
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"F-k," especially during intense interrogations. Plus "bulls--t," "bastard," "damn," and "hell."
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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.
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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.
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.
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