Book Reviews

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Here’s the thing: I admire what Pullman can do; I admire the way he can articulate things; I admire the worlds he has creates with all of their wild wonder and glory; but I do not admire this book. It is overlong, overwrought and often – frankly – dull.

I wanted to like it a lot. I’d waited for it for a long time, due to a reservation queue of thousands, and I was excited to get my hands on it. But that excitement faded, it faded so swiftly, for this is not the best of his work. Pullman is a good writer but this is something like fifteen books packed into one, and all of them begging for an edit in a way that I have not witnessed for a long time. There is a story here. There is always a story with Pullman, often a powerful and wonderful one, but here it’s drowned in noise. Theory. Metaphor. Commentary. Politics. And all of this is fine, providing it’s managed. Providing at some point it stops – simply, briefly – to let the book breathe.

But it doesn’t. We have characters stopping to info-dump with each other for three hundred pages before wandering off and never being heard of ever again. Important Things Being Discussed In Impenetrable Manners Between Important People With Increasingly Incomprehensible Symbolic Fashion. Tired tropes of sexual violence being used to little to no effect. Messy subplots. Fifteen page arguments about theory. And then there’s the characters who swim in and out every ten chapters so that you can never quite grasp who and what they are or even, really care.

This feels like a book that has been told that it’s important and begun to believe it.

And oh, I did not care about it. I cared at first because I loved the story of Lyra (oh that past tense, that past tense). I have sat on her and Will’s bench in Oxford, I have trod in her steps, but now I do not care. I just don’t, and that saddens me so much. She is one of the biggest, wildest characters to take part in the literary world and yet here, she’s neutered. Every single step, every single breath. And I know (hope) that this is the stutter before the step of her journey, the moment where the world beats her down before she rises, but I do not care any more. I am done with these, I think, and so there we are. I am tired of this series and I am done.

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Book Reviews

The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage : Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to review this book so, forgive me if I take a while to get to the point. If I’m honest, I’m not wholly sure as to why I didn’t like this and I’m not sure that that dislike comes from me, as opposed to the text itself. Like I said; difficult.

Let’s do the formal bit first. This is a prequel to the events of Northern Lights. There’s a boy and a girl and a baby named Lyra. Things happen; characters make cameos, and I am left ferociously whelmed by the whole experience. (“I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you just be…. whelmed?” “I think you can in Europe.”)

If I’m honest, and these reviews are the space to be so, La Belle Sauvage is a solid adventure story that tastes of Peter Ransome and Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell and that’s about the all of it. That is not to say that these are bad references to pick up on, because they are the very opposite of it. Ibbotson and Rundell and Ransome are totemic and magnificent, and to participate in that space on an even keel is a marvellous and beautiful thing.

There’s some hints of something else too in this book, even though the last third feels like a different book altogether (and I wonder, so much, at that structure), and the wilderness of Pullman’s power sometimes makes itself known with ferocious strength, but as a whole this book lacks something of the raw tenderness that his work can achieve. Is that an oxymoron? Can tenderness be raw? I’m not sure, but I know that it’s the best way to describe it. This universe of daemons and witches allows it. Longs for it, sometimes. You share the deepest part of yourself with somebody else, and have the pain and the ecstasy all at once. La Belle Sauvage doesn’t quite connect, somehow, and it might do in the following books, it might find its space in its wild and wonderful world, but right now it feels anticlimactic. It doesn’t feel like the book it should be.

I was also concerned at the shaping given to many of the characters here and indeed, even in writing that, I have to stop and choose my words carefully. What am I trying to say? I think I am trying to say that I loved Malcolm and his heart, but I did not like certain aspects of how the characters were constructed. Perhaps that comes from spending the last few years embedded in books that talk about girlhood and womanhood, but I ache somewhat when women perform the role of caregiver and when girls become romantic pawns – and have this element of their characters be not treated as powerful. Does that make sense? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I wonder if, in a way, I’m writing this review too soon. But then again, when can you write a review? Sometimes I write about a book the moment I finish it because I’m hungry and giddy and mad with love, and sometimes I wait and try to let the thoughts settle in my head.

And now that I have done that, we are here and I am left with this : I think this book could have been better and I am still not sure how I feel about that.

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Book Reviews

Lyra’s Oxford : Philip Pullman

Lyra's Oxford (His Dark Materials, #3.5)Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This book contains a story and several other things.”

So opens this slim and quiet little volume of Lyra’s Oxford, a book that truly contains a story and several other things, but maybe Other Things is how we should think of these latter objects for: “They might have come from anywhere. They might have come from other worlds. That scribbled-on map, that publisher’s catalogue -they might have been put down absent-mindedly in another universe and been blown by a chance wind through an open window, to find themselves after many adventures on a a market-stall in our world.”

(This quote, these ideas, they are perfect to me for they talk of the split between our world and the world of the literature, the ephemeral nature of reading, identifying and *living* a text, the shift between fiction and fact, the blurred edge of books, the cliff-edge of reading…)

The central story of this rich volume concerns Lyra and Pantalaimon. It is set after the events of His Dark Materials and so certain things have occured. Certain shifts in the world have happened. And for every action there is a reaction. For every pebble dropped in the water, there is an echo upon the shore. This is that echo. This is that reaction.

The fascinating edge of this story, this collection of thoughts and ideas and of fragments, is the idea of literary space and place here. Pullman’s Oxford is a wild-edged space, shifting through identities with the effortless skill of something very old and wise and powerful. It is as much a character in the books as Lyra and Pan and Will and all.

And the thrilling and terrifying edge to this Oxford is that it is visitable. One can drive up the road and into this city full of story and richness and of the darkest edges. This is something acknowledged in Lyra’s Oxford as the book provides you with a map to the centre of the city. The tangible joy of folding out this map is not to be underestimated. And the conceptual groundbreaking of such a move! To unfold this map of Lyra’s Oxford is to lay this Oxford (accessible by Train and River and Zeppelin) against *our* Oxford – or is it our Oxford? Are the two not one and the same? Is our Oxford simply a face of the city; a reflection caught in glass, and is this its true face? A city full of museums and of zeppelins and colleges and Botanic Gardens with one lonely bench underneath a low-branched tree?

And even now as I write this, I am drawn back to my memories of Oxford and of walking those streets, and seeing a glint of something fly across the roof and of seeing a small girl in the doorway of one of the colleges. I am pulled back into this space of Other Things; this edge, this cliff-edge, and I am lifting my arms and I am flying, I am gone.

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(I write further on the map in Lyra’s Oxford here)