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The Reaction Posts of Dust

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Finally got to La Belle Sauvage!

(Not to be confused with La Belle Sauvage, or a Progress Through the Beau-Monde, a pair of books published in 1803. Coincidence or inspiration?)

For people who liked HDM: would recommend.

It might or might not be a good jumping-in point for people who haven’t read any of the other books. Even though it’s the first in a series, it has a really hard case of “middle installment in the trilogy” syndrome — sets a bunch of things up, then abruptly stops. As a standalone work I’m sure the end would be pretty unsatisfying.

On the other hand…it does a lot of over-explaining. Every time there’s a new plot point (e.g. “the witches have some kind of prophecy about Lyra”), we get multiple scenes of it being repeated, in full, to characters who didn’t know it already. For me that was annoying, but now that I think about it, it’s a sharp contrast to the way The Golden Compass is pretty impenetrable on first go-through, and might make this book an easier way in.

So that’s the complaining out of the way. On to…

The Good Bits (spoiler-free summary)

The new characters are well-rounded and likeable. Mal in particular is a good combination of “impressive competence” and “eleven-year-old fancies.”

Hannah Relf is amazing in all ways and I would have read an entire book about just her.

Baby Lyra is precious and perfect. She and Pan are a nonverbal infant for the entire book, but she’s written with so much personality, and is so clearly the tiny version of the character we know and love in later books.

The prose in general is great. Not in the sense of Terry Pratchett, where you actively notice the cleverness, but great in the sense that it’s clear and fluid and gets everything across without getting in the way. (I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t read so many badly-written books lately.)

La Belle Sauvage is the name of Mal’s canoe. One of his friends pranked him by painting an “s” over the “v”.

New information about daemons!

New Daemon Lore (vaguely spoilery)

Unsettled daemons can take combination forms. When Mal is hanging out in a swamp, his Asta turns into an owl with duck feathers, so she can keep a distant lookout but still be waterproof.

Alice doesn’t seem stressed that her daemon Ben is unsettled at age 16, though she’s actively curious what he’ll settle as.

Daemons can be physically injured — there’s one that has a missing leg. (It’s implied that the injury was caused by its physically-abusive human, and that they are collectively pretty unhinged.)

Daemons can urinate. (It’s not described as a physical need, just an expression of contempt.)

There’s an ambiguously-magical woman whose daemon is a flock of butterflies. (!!)

Before they learn language, babies and their daemons will babble to each other. It’s suggested that this can turn into a rudimentary language of its own if you don’t teach them English (or whatever), similar to the way our-world infants will come up with proto-language if a group are neglected together.

At one point baby!Pan turns into a kitten and kneads Mal’s bare hand. He interprets it as “the taboo on daemon/human touching is learned,” but I think it’s more “Lyra really likes this kid.” Either way, it’s adorable.

A Proper Summary (here be spoilers)

Malcolm Polstead is a 10-11-year-old boy who works at his parents’ tavern/inn, where he hears all the local gossip. (One of his co-workers is 16-year-old Alice Parslow, a cousin of Roger.) He also helps out at the priory across the river. When the nuns take in baby Lyra, he gets completely starry-eyed.

Mal gets recruited by Hannah Relf as a junior informant, for a government anti-Magisterium spy organization code-named Oakley Street. (Coram van Texel, aka Farder Coram, is another of their informants.) They’re passing around secret messages about Lyra and alethiometers and the mysterious “Rusakov field.”

When they’re first introduced, Oakley Street is fascinating. The last trilogy was mostly through a kid’s POV — now here are the adults of the Resistance that had her back! Subterfuge, secret codes, undercover research, spying!

Hannah is doing research with the Oxford alethiometer, which means she gets short limited sessions with it, and uses some of that time for spy research. Later there’s a sequence where a branch of the Magisterium steals a different alethiometer, killing someone in the process, and Oakley Street retrieves it…but instead of returning it to its owners, they sneak it off and deliver it to Hannah, asking her to use it on their behalf full-time.

Did I mention I would read a whole book about her? Because I would.

But the group gets really worn-down by the book’s problem with over-explanation. For one thing, Mal gets let in on way more detail than he needs to know. (Seriously, why would you tell the kid you have a stolen alethiometer? His loyalty is still untested, not to mention, he’s a child.) On top of that, any time Oakley Street leaves top-secret information at dead-drops, that same info is also getting happily gossiped about at the tavern, and at the priory, and by random people in town.

We r serious spy team, this iz super sekrit.

The book’s recurring villain isn’t a Magisterium agent anyway. It’s Gerard Bonneville, a creepy disgraced physicist with a hyena daemon who thinks kidnapping Lyra will give him leverage to get the Church to fund his research again.

Partway through the book (I want to say halfway?), everything gets derailed by a massive flood. Buildings are flooded to the second story, that level of massive. Mal has a canoe, which got souped-up earlier by Coram to be extra-seaworthy, so he, Lyra, and Alice end up using it to escape.

At first their vague plan is to get to Jordan College. When the racing water takes them well past it, Mal decides they’ll deliver Lyra to Lord Asriel in London. They know he’s her father, and they also happen to know Mrs. Coulter is her mother, because literally nothing is secret in this book.

Up to this point everything has been well-grounded in reality. The canoe repair and navigation is expertly described, the locations around Oxford are developed in rich detail, the characters talk about practical issues of supplies and weather.

Three-quarters of the way through the book, we do a sudden genre shift, and now it’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Our heroes have a stopover on an enchanted island, where we meet Diannia, the possibly-faerie and definitely-unstable woman whose daemon is a whole flock of butterflies. Then another with a grand mansion in the distance, surrounded by an Alice-in-Wonderland garden that won’t let them get any closer to it. The place is full of partygoers who can’t see the children, but whose food they can get away with stealing — and then eating, because that sure sounds like a safe idea. They sail through an enchanted river-gate after Mal bluffs its guardian with news that Lyra is a princess, and they’re delivering her on the orders of the King of Albion.

Bonneville chases them the whole time. He murders at least one person along the way, so they end up killing him in self-defense, but then on one of the enchanted islands he’s back? And it’s not like they sailed into the afterlife, because we know what the afterlife looks like in the HDM multiverse. Lyra hasn’t even fixed it yet.

This whole arc had a lot of cool imagery, but felt really disjointed from the rest of the book. It would’ve made more sense if the fairytale elements had been integrated earlier, maybe foreshadowed by Hannah’s research.

Or if it didn’t get so fantastical at all. When Diannia was introduced, with her creepy demeanor and impression of being older than her youthful appearance, my first assumption was that she was a witch, who had taken off from her clan in grief after losing a daughter and was now fixating on Lyra for the same reason. That would’ve made more sense than “by the way, in Lyra’s world, faeries are suddenly a thing maybe.”

Finally the kids make it back to reality, re-kill Bonneville, and manage to rendezvous with Lord Asriel. He takes them to Jordan College, where he leaves Lyra for safekeeping.

This is the sudden cutoff point. Asriel takes off to do research in the North, though it’s not clear why thinks Lyra is safer at Jordan than she was at the priory in the first place. We don’t see Mal and Alice return home. It’s not like Mal’s parents were much of a presence, but it would’ve been nice to see them find out their kid was okay.

And we don’t hear anything at all from the Oakley Street crew. They were mentioned a couple of times in the back half of the book — Hannah tries to help the others work out where Mal would be taking Lyra — but got no resolution. The book really needed a bonding/reconnecting/debriefing scene with Mal and Hannah, and we didn’t get it.

(We do get Asriel warning Mal and Alice to keep the whole thing hush-hush, for the sake of protecting Lyra. Which, okay, but Mal should be able to trust Hannah with at least as much top-secret information as she entrusted to him. And both kids deserve an adult to help them decompress.)

Hopefully some of that will get retroactively dealt with in books 2 and 3. We know Mal grows up to be a scholar, and he and Hannah both tutor Lyra at points, so they’re still going to be connected.

And I’m looking forward to the next books in general. This one could be exasperating, but it wasn’t actively upsetting, and there were more than enough good and fun parts to make up the difference. If the rest of the trilogy is at least this good, it’ll be a satisfying read.

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Finally got the audiobook of The Secret Commonwealth checked out from my local library!

It’s 20 hours long. Whoof.

As for the contents…look, it was well-written prose. I didn’t get bored while listening. (Rereading that last review, I realized I’d written the same thing about the previous book, too.) But in retrospect, there sure was not a lot that happened in those 20 hours. Some notable action bits, in between a lot of padding.

And my reactions mostly consist of…complaints. Not “this is hideous, time to ragequit the series, this is an unqualified anti-rec” complaints, more a low-level churn of frustration.

(There’s one scene I know has made someone else outright refuse to read it, though, and I think it’s totally reasonable. More on that later.)

So I’m gonna try to unpack a bunch of it here. Hopefully in enough detail that, if you haven’t read it yet (and don’t mind spoilers), it can help you make an informed decision about whether it’s worth spending 20 hours of your life on.

Spoilers start here!


The Story

We open with Lyra as a 20-year-old student at St. Sophia’s, a women’s college in Oxford. She’s made some kinda-friends, including former booty calls that she’s still on good terms with, but she’s badly estranged from Pantalaimon.

Their rift is exacerbated by a couple of books she’s read that are popular with young intellectuals lately. One is a philosophy book, one is a novel, both of them seem broadly Ayn Randian in the sense that “teens/college kids get really into these books and decide it’s smart and fashionable to adopt their moral framework, ignoring both the logical failures and the ways in which this turns you into a horrible person.”

She’s been staying at Jordan between semesters, but political drama forces her to move, and that’s when Oakley Street swoops in to make contact. They’re the secret Magisterum-thwarting spy organization that Hannah Relf worked for in La Belle Sauvage. Employees now include Alice Lonsdale and Malcolm Polstead, who fill Lyra in on the events of the previous book.

Lyra crashes at Malcolm’s parents’ inn for a bit, but her fighting with Pan gets so bad that he takes off, leaving a note. He’s going to confront one of the authors of the fashionable/terrible books — who lives in Germany, so this could take a while.

Since Lyra can’t just hang around and go through the motions of a normal life while her daemon is visibly missing, she takes off too. First on a detour to the Gyptians, then on a sorta meandering cross-continental journey of her own.

Along the way, both Lyra and Pan keep uncovering new details about this ongoing side plot:

It turns out there’s a place, I think somewhere in the Middle East, where daemons can’t go — same as the area in the North that witches use for separation ordeals. If a human crosses that area, they arrive at the growing-place of a type of rose that won’t grow properly anywhere else, whose oil has the same effect as the seed-pod sap used by Mary Malone in the mulefa world — you can use it to make a Dust-viewing lens.

This rose oil can also be used to make all kinds of super-cool products, like the World’s Best Perfume and the World’s Best Rosewater, so it’s valuable for lots of reasons. But a few researchers have caught on to the Dust-viewing power, and the Magisterium has caught on that some dangerous research is happening with roses, so they’ve started destroying every rosebush they can find in the general region — wreaking havoc with the global economy in the process.

(They’re also trying to convince the general population that God Says Roses Are Immoral now. If this book had come out 5 years ago, I could’ve made some great connections with “there’s widespread successful Magisterium propaganda about how nobody should like or respect the work of botanists.”)

And there’s a related plot where Lyra’s uncle (she actually has one! Mrs. Coulter had a brother!) is playing a long game to re-consolidate as much Magisterium power as possible under a single individual. It gets us some good dramatic sequences…which I feel no need to break down here, because they’re exactly the ones you would imagine, with exactly the outcome you’re already expecting.

One of Uncle Wannabe-Pope’s employees is Bonneville Junior, the son of the miniboss from La Belle Sauvage. He’s a trained alethiometrist, but is more interested in his personal vendetta against Lyra than his actual job. Takes after Dad in that he’s not very deep or complex, just a straightforward fun-to-hate villain.

Pan eventually makes his way to the Terrible Author’s home, where he discovers that things are weird and creepy, but not very specific. Doesn’t achieve anything in particular, either. Disheartened, he sets off for the Region of the Weird Roses, with the idea he’ll meet Lyra there.

Lyra, meanwhile, has a notebook they recovered from an explorer who went to the Region of the Weird Roses. It includes a list of other (non-witch) people across the world who’ve been separated, because apparently they’re more common than you’d think, and have a secret support network. So she visits a few of these people along her trip, with an endgame goal of Weird Roseville.

Malcolm also makes his own journey toward Weird Roseville. I think it was part of an Oakley Street investigation into “what does the Magisterium have against roses these days?” In the middle of it, Bonneville Junior confronts him (Junior is having trouble finding Lyra, but has a secondary vendetta against Malcolm for killing his dad, so this is almost as good). Malcolm talks him down.

At last Lyra, Pan, and Junior all hit the same “creepy deserted town in the general area of Weird Roseville.” But none of them manage to interact before the book ends.

…In my LBS review, I said it had serious middle-of-the-trilogy syndrome, a whole lot of setup for no payoff. TSC spends very little time following up on any of it. To be fair, the Original Trilogy has happened in the meantime and this book also tries to address some of the events from that, but the vast bulk of it is even more setup for no payoff.

Complaints, Broadly Organized By Theme, In Loosely Chronological Order

Lyra at St. Sophia’s:

  • I really like how the opening sequence involves Lyra noticing a friend is in distress and helping her out! (Friend’s dad is in the rose-using business, and his company is going under.) And then…that’s the last we see of any connections with female friends her own age. In the entire book.
  • One of the Terrible Rationalist Books is spreading the idea that “daemons are a collective hallucination.” This is not a “rational” idea in this world! It would be like saying that faces are a collective hallucination!
  • And Lyra is the least likely person in this world to buy into it, because she’s visited a world without visible daemons, and got empirical proof (via Will’s and John Parry’s separation ordeals) that even under those conditions, they still exist!
  • I can appreciate the idea of Lyra and Pan being traumatized and scarred and having trouble, but this, specifically, is a nonsensical thing for them to argue over.
  • The book also gestures (not very hard, thankfully) toward the idea that Lyra is doubting the existence of magic in general. Which, again, is the equivalent of someone from our world deciding it’s rational to doubt the existence of weather.
  • Also, it seems like Lyra/Pan haven’t had any contact with witch society through these years. Why not? If anyone’s going to have sympathy and understanding and support groups for their separation-related trauma, it’s the culture where every single member formally goes through the same thing! And I’m sure Serafina would be delighted to see them! But they don’t even consider the idea.

Lyra and Malcolm:

  • Yes, they’re being telegraphed as a future couple, and yes, it’s just as creepy and unappealing as the internet has been saying.
  • And, look, I’m not going to say “20-year-old Lyra is too young to date anyone she wants.” Not after we got through all of Original Flavor HDM without saying “12-year-old Lyra is too young to go on an interdimensional journey with no adult supervision and save the multiverse.”
  • But he was one of her teachers when she was 16, and his POV includes remembering how he had to actively shut down sexual interest in her then, and here in the present Lyra still thinks of him as kind of a distant authority figure, and that’s weird, okay?
  • They only have a couple days’ worth of actual interaction before being apart for the rest of the book. That’s not enough time to believably develop their dynamic into something believably-potentially-romantic. So the narrative doesn’t try.
  • …but it still has multiple people ask Malcolm if he’s in love with Lyra afterward.
  • The foreshadowing on Lyra’s side is all in how she keeps thinking about how similar he is to Will. (Cat daemon, killed someone when he was a tween, etc.) Because that’s what we all want for Lyra’s romantic future, a knockoff Will-substitute, amirite?
  • Separately: Malcolm and friends tell Lyra the whole backstory about the magical boat trip from La Belle Sauvage, but it doesn’t seem like she tells them anything about “that time I went on an interdimensional journey, built a group of allies from multiple worlds and species including literal angels, killed God, and permanently rewrote the nature of death.” I feel like that should’ve come up!

General daemon stuff:

  • There’s a moment in the early chapters when Pan, wandering alone at night, considers eating some small critter (the kind that an ordinary pine marten would eat). It’s not like he’s going through a species-identity crisis, either. It’s just written as…a thing a daemon might do. So that’s weird.
  • In the original series, daemon separation is a major, improbable ordeal. Under normal circumstances, a human and a daemon being dragged apart past their distance limit will just kill them. At Bolvangar they figured out a severance method that would leave you physically functional, but dead inside. Witch-style separation only happens at this special daemon-repelling place in the North (you don’t have to be a witch to use it, see John Parry, but they usually don’t tell non-witches it exists), or on the shores of the World of the Dead. So far, so good.
  • In this series, we find out that there’s another place on this Earth with the same daemon-repelling properties. It’s also remote and isolated and associated with Cool Weird Stuff (the cities in the Northern Lights vs. the Dust-revealing roses). Again, so far, so good.
  • …And then we find out that random people can just kinda do a separation ordeal anywhere. Okay, it already happened to Malcolm in La Belle Sauvage, but now it’s all over the place. Lyra keeps spotting people on the street without daemons! Pan teams up with a kid who got dragged apart from her daemon in a shipwreck, and it didn’t kill them! It’s too easy. It’s unsatisfying. It undercuts so much of the monumental feeling separation had in the original trilogy.
  • It also makes it even weirder that nobody was able to hook Lyra and Pan up with a support group. Oakley Street couldn’t suss it out? Her friends among the Gyptians couldn’t catch an underground rumor and pass it on?
  • Related: when we saw daemonless kids in The Golden Compass, they were treated like horror-movie monsters. Like zombies, ghosts, bodies walking around without heads. But when people clock Lyra as being daemonless here, they treat it like it’s something immoral. Like she’s walking around topless and needs to cover it up.
  • There’s just a general pattern of rewriting HDM’s established rules about daemons, and not for the better.

And speaking of rewriting established rules…general alethiometer stuff:

  • There is a New Method for reading the alethiometer. It involves pointing all three hands at the same symbol, which already seems like a gimmick, not a useful way to frame a question.
  • And somehow, that gets you the answers in the form of…magic visions. No intuition or interpretation needed! The sights and sounds just get funneled directly into your brain!
  • The reason this isn’t a Plot-Breaking Hack is because it makes the user super-queasy. You can only use it when you’re in a position to be sick afterward, and people would rather not use it at all.
  • Lyra spends most of the story with the alethiometer, and without all the symbology books that go with it. She avoids using the New Method because of the nausea, but she also avoids using the Classic Method, on the grounds that it apparently can’t get her anything without the books.
  • She’s been studying these books for years now! Couldn’t she at least try to read it, and make her best guess at the interpretation? Maybe sometimes she gets it right, maybe sometimes she’s wrong and things go sideways and she realizes in hindsight which of the symbols she misread, maybe sometimes she gives up and gets depressed and puts it away without drawing a conclusion at all…but nope, she just flat-out doesn’t interact with it.
  • Midway through the book, Lyra gets a tipoff about a kind of truth-reading cards. That’s fine; we know there are other methods of truth-reading in the multiverse, including the I Ching and Mary Malone’s computer. Makes sense as a new tidbit of worldbuilding.
  • But towards the end of the story, someone helpfully gifts Lyra a deck of the cards. And she spends some time trying to infer answers from how the pretty pictures on the cards fit together. More time than she spends trying to infer answers from how the pretty pictures on the alethiometer fit together.
  • The alethiometer didn’t need a New Method or a total replacement in the narrative…but apparently it’s getting them.
  • And what was the point of Lyra dedicating herself to studying those symbols, for years, if she can get better and more-accurate data from a set of symbols she’d never seen before until this week?

Pan’s international voyage:

  • This all started when Pan got the idea that Terrible Author had “put a spell on Lyra and stolen her imagination.” Which sounds like a figure of speech at first, but no, apparently Pan thinks this guy is literally magic.
  • And yet, somehow, not magic enough to be dangerous, even for a single lone daemon whose only plan is “confront him directly and demand that he fix it”?
  • Most of the trip is uneventful, since it’s a long string of Pan successfully keeping out-of-sight.
  • There’s one clever part where, once he’s in Terrible Author’s hometown, he finds a school for the blind to ask for information. That way he can say “my girl is totally standing right over there, don’t worry about it, now, any chance you know where Terrible Author lives?”
  • …of course, the first person he asks has exactly the right answer and is happy to share. Convenient, that.
  • As mentioned, Terrible Author’s setup is suitably creepy and off-putting, but Pan doesn’t figure out anything about why. Doesn’t investigate. Didn’t come up with any kind of plan beforehand about how to coax Terrible Author into undoing his evil spell. Pan just confronts him, demands he fix Lyra, realizes this hasn’t fixed Lyra, and leaves.
  • There’s a bombshell much later on when Lyra finds out that Terrible Author is separated! And, although there’s a daemon who hangs around with him, they don’t actually belong to each other! This is fascinating and disturbing and would’ve been so much more satisfying if, you know, Pan had figured this out and was actively trying to bring the information to Lyra. Or, heck, if anything had been done with it at all.
  • Shortly afterward, Pan runs into this girl who just happens to be separated from her daemon, and is available and happy to team up with Pan, so they can head off to Weird Roseville together. Convenient. Again.

Lyra’s Bogus Journey:

  • Lyra has a much harder time staying out of sight than Pan, so she gets a lot more interaction along her trip.
  • Most of it is a long string of the same convenient “running into people who are helpful and friendly and have exactly the information she needs to move the plot along.” (More details on that below.)
  • When this happened in the original trilogy, it was the alethiometer deus-ex-machining her in the right direction, which worked! But here it seems to keep happening by accident. (She brings the alethiometer, but, as mentioned, she doesn’t use it.)
  • The Conveniently Helpful People also keep telling her (with minimal prompting, and what seems like total honesty?) whole backstories. All of which are more interesting than the actual narrative she’s going through.
  • They also occasionally mention God/the Authority, and Lyra doesn’t have much of a reaction. I wish, just once, she had snapped “it doesn’t matter what the Authority thinks! Or rather, what he used to think, since my boyfriend and I killed him when we were 12!”
  • The convenience also could’ve worked if Oakley Street agents were being cool and clever and actively tracking her journey in order to help. She does run into a few of them, but that seems to be by accident too.
  • And it could’ve worked if there was other magic steering her along — she keeps dropping the phrase “the secret commonwealth,” meaning the world’s hidden population of faeries and other supernatural creatures — but as of the end of the book, none of Lyra’s friendly helpers have been revealed to be anything other than human. (Some are modified in exotic ways, but they were human to start with, at least.)
  • Even farther towards the end of the book, after this long string of people being Conveniently Helpful For No Reason, she ends up in a train car with…and I wish I was making this up…a bunch of soldiers who are Inconveniently Attempted Rapists For No Reason.
  • That record-scratch moment your brain just did? That’s how it feels in the book, too. The attack comes out of nowhere, there’s suddenly a big action sequence with Lyra fighting back, their CO shows up and makes them let her go, and then she leaves the train and heads almost directly to the next bunch of Conveniently Helpful People.
  • If anyone wants more detailed spoilers, either to be prepared before reaching the scene or to decide whether you’ll read it at all, let me know.
  • To be blunt about one thing: from the in-scene descriptions I would’ve said none of these guys actually managed to get their dicks out, but a few days later we get the book’s first and only reference to Lyra having periods. And she doesn’t think “oh, thank republic-of-heavens, I’m not pregnant,” which suggests she knew it wasn’t a risk, but the whole Narrative Reason you write that in after an assault scene is because someone is afraid it’s a risk, so, what are you even doing, Pullman??

Okay, switching tracks.

Some of the people Lyra encounters, usually with personal stories that are way more interesting, and I wish they’d been [part of] the actual main plot:

  • A guy who meets her at a train station, says he has a friend who needs her help, leads her out into a maze of city streets where she explicitly thinks about how risky this is because she’s totally lost…but she does the mission and it’s fine and he leads her right back to the train station afterward.
    • The friend is a human who’s been modified by “a magician” to be some kind of fire-elemental person, and wants Lyra to help find his daemon, who was modified into a water-elemental form — a mermaid! This is cool and fascinating and scary and raises so many questions —
    • — and they get killed immediately after Lyra reunites them, and we never find out anything more about it.
    • The killer is the magician, who had been holding the water-sprite daemon captive. (And is possibly also the guy’s father? Finally, someone who can beat Marisa and Asriel in a “Bad Parenting Juice” drinking contest.) Which, again, is fascinating and evocative — how do you become a magician? Or are they born, like the witches? How many are there? What kinds of things are they doing in the world? —
    • — yeah, we don’t find out anything about that either.
    • Murderous Magician Dad just gives Lyra some helpful plot information, then sends her and the train-station guy off on their way.
  • A couple of guys who intervene when Lyra is being harassed at a bar.
    • They steer her outside, she’s prepared for a fight, but they hold up their hands and say they’re friendly, and also, they noticed someone steal the alethiometer bag off her earlier, so here, would she like it back?
    • They give her some helpful rumors, too. Don’t remember which specific ones, but they lead her to the next plot point.
  • A rich elderly princess who’s on the Daemonless International Support Group list, because her daemon fell in love (!) with another woman (!!) and eventually ran off with her (!!!).
    • Lyra thinks to herself that she’s seen other situations where a daemon and their human have different feelings about a romance. Just thinks it in passing, and then it’s gone. I want to see these situations! I want on-page exploration of multiple ways they can work! How do they correspond to the feelings of people in worlds where all the daemons are internal?
    • As for the princess, I already knew it was going to be a big scandal — two human women in that day and age could never be a couple, at least not in public, and A Literal Princess is a very public figure —
    • but then, in spite of the scandal, the princess moves in with the woman! And they travel together, they work together, they share a bed, she explains to Lyra that she played the role so thoroughly she made herself fall in love with the woman!
    • …and then it falls apart for some reason, and the princess leaves, but her daemon insists on staying. So that’s how they get separated. Deliberately walking away from each other.
    • There’s a brief reference to the idea of him wishing he was the other woman’s daemon, instead of the princess’s. How does that work? How do you get so disconnected from yourself, and in such a skewed partial-match with someone else, that you end up with that kind of yearning?
    • In case you can’t tell, I want to read this novel. I would trade the entirety of The Secret Commonwealth for this novel. No question, hands down.
    • Instead: Princess says “if you run into my daemon, tell him I’d like to see him again before we die?” Lyra says “sure, can do, thanks for the brunch.” And then, you guessed it, that whole scene is over and done with and we never get any follow-up on it again.
  • A pair of agents from Oakley Street, who say “hey, Lyra, have you considered using some basic disguise techniques, like dyeing your hair and wearing glasses?”
    • And then they give her a lovely haircut and a dye job and a spare pair of fake glasses.
    • This isn’t anywhere near the beginning of Lyra’s journey, by the way! This is more than 80% of the way through the book. There’s no special reason she needs it more after this point.
    • It’s like Pullman suddenly realized a disguise might help, wrote the scene at the point he had reached, and then never went back and edited to put it in a more meaningful location.
  • The stranger on a train who shows Lyra the deck of “exactly the same as an alethiometer” cards, gives her a demonstration of how to use them, and then leaves the whole deck behind for her to keep.
  • A married couple who don’t share any languages in common with Lyra, and don’t seem to have a lot of money…but feed her and let her stay at their house overnight, for free, even daemonless as she is. They also give her a free niqab so she can move around less conspicuously (she’s still injured from the fight with the soldiers).
  • A priest who invites her into his church, isn’t bothered when she takes off the niqab, helps treat her injuries, and gives her a motherlode of useful details about highly-illegal dealings he’s not even supposed to know about, but will unveil to this total stranger who just wandered in, because she needs them for the next plot point.
    • This when Lyra finds out that someone in this region has resurrected the Bolvangar method. But this time they aren’t kidnapping random children for it. No, they’re paying for it. If you’re poor enough, and desperate enough, and can’t spare any more kidneys, these people will buy your daemon to sell on the black market.
    • The city has a whole secret underclass of illegally-severed people working in the sewers.
    • Meanwhile, rich people who’ve been deserted by their daemons can purchase a stand-in. This is what Terrible Author did. Of course, it’s not a true replacement, but the dealers boast about their ability to make an excellent match.
    • There are also people who buy separated daemons for other scientific/experimental purposes. Details left to our imaginations.
    • This is a horrifying sinister mindblowing discovery, as much of a bombshell as the original Bolvangar was. I mean, it would’ve hit harder if Lyra had uncovered it by spying, or tricking someone into revealing the information, or anything more elaborate than “asking straightforward sorta-related questions and getting this whole sordid story infodumped by the first guy she asked,” but it’s still big.
    • So it’s gonna shake things up something fierce, right? Maybe Lyra won’t go full-on “calling in the cavalry to tear the place down” until Book 3, but this would be her new “stepping through the doorway into the sky” moment — where the horror of what she’s learned galvanizes her into making a pivotal decision, where she starts laying the groundwork for the revolution —
    • — no, of course not, this is where she starts going around to the hideouts of various undercover daemon-sellers and asking if they can help her find Pan.
    • Come on.

And this brings us to the end of the book. One of the black-market daemon-sellers guides Lyra to the creepy abandoned town where the final scene takes place.

In these last moments, the audience (but not Lyra) finds out that this guy has ulterior motives. Which would make it the first time in the whole book when “Lyra or Pan takes a Conveniently Helpful Person at face value with total credulity” turns out to be a bad idea.

(And, I mean, he’s a black-market daemon-seller. If anyone on that list was obviously an unethical scumball who shouldn’t be counted on….!)

Finally, a few things that don’t fit into any neat lists, but annoyed me enough to mention:

1) People curse in this book. Which is notable because they didn’t in HDM, and it wasn’t just the adults watching their mouths around tween Lyra — we got plenty of scenes that only had people like Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel in them. Those two would definitely be dropping f-bombs if it was a routine part of their world’s language, and this book reveals that it is.

So every time it happens it breaks your immersion, pointedly reminding you “this isn’t a real world, it’s a fake story where the author can switch the profanity-filter on and off at will.” Does it enhance the narrative in a way that’s worth the tradeoff? I don’t think so.

2) Before I read the book, I’d heard vague spoilers about “a character with a mermaid daemon,” and figured it was someone from a cool magical species — hopefully more expansion/exploration on the fairy from La Belle Sauvage whose daemon appeared to be “a whole flock of butterflies.”

But no, it’s a magically-modified human. His situation doesn’t get explored that deeply before he dies, or connect with anything else in the story. The fairy, meanwhile, does get mentioned when Malcolm tells Lyra about meeting her, but she doesn’t reappear or get any kind of follow-up.

In spite of the title, the only explicit appearance of any members of the “secret commonwealth” is some little glowing spirits, basically wights, that Lyra watches over the side of a gyptian boat one time.

3) There’s a scene where a bunch of people gather in a meeting hall to protest the Magisterium sabotaging their various rose-related livelihoods. A couple Magisterium reps are there. Malcolm is also there, and his POV basically goes “huh, looks like all the exits have gotten the doors shut. And barred. And suddenly they each have an armed Magisterium agent standing in front of them. That’s weird. Gonna keep quietly observing to find out what happens next.”

This guy is supposed to be a cool experienced anti-Magisterium spy! This is basically a giant neon sign flashing COMING UP NEXT: MASSACRE! (It is not a misdirect, either.)

And Malcolm sees it, but doesn’t read it, or take any action to try to subvert it, or even move to defend himself — it’s just like any cheesy horror movie where the audience is shouting LOOK BEHIND YOU at the unwitting character who’s about to get murdered.

Wrap-Up Thoughts

Whatever happens in the final volume of this trilogy, it might reveal things that redeem some of the problems in this book. But I’ll be honest, I’m not holding my breath.

And when I think about reveals that would address these problems, everything I come up with is stuff that should’ve just been in this book.

For example: let’s say the Fair Folk are directly involved after all, intervening to steer Lyra and Pan down the most convenient paths. In particular, the guy on the train who only appears long enough to give Lyra a set of alethiometry cards + a tutorial on how to use them — I really want him to be Fae. It’s so contrived and random if he’s not.

But the readers should know about it! Back in HDM, we would get scenes about the plans and activities of all the other factions at work. It might take a while to discover the exact details of (for example) the witches’ ultimate goal that Lyra was part of, but we knew they had a goal, and were supporting her in service of it. If the Secret Commonwealth is actively involved in the plot, we should’ve gotten that by now.

Semi-related: I feel like, if the rest of the book was better, then I’d have no trouble explaining a lot of the Lyra-specific issues as “she’s super-depressed, not in a place to make great choices or take a lot of decisive action.”

But it’s not like she’s drifting around in a trauma fog that hampers her ability to get things done. Her journey, while not perfect or threat-free, still comes together with improbable smoothness — as if the writing hasn’t noticed that she’s not being proactive and prescient and well-coordinated and overall super-competent about it. Meanwhile, other characters are underwhelming in the same way. (Looking at you, Malcolm “I Can’t Believe It’s Now a Bloodbath” Polstead.)

So it doesn’t seem like a conscious narrative choice to write Lyra this way. It just seems consistent with the complaints I have about everything else in the writing.

…let’s be honest, I’m almost certainly gonna read the third book anyway. I’m enough of a completist that it’ll bother me not to, I don’t have a lot of hard-stop dealbreakers that would make me bow out anyway, and, well, I do a lot of work that requires time-passing listening material. The Secret Commonwealth is nowhere near the most-frustrating audio I’ve used to fill that time.

But it hasn’t left me excited or optimistic or Shivering With Anticipation, either.

Mostly I just anticipate getting some useful stuff done while I listen, and then having a final set of reactions to work through in another one of these posts.