The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust volume 2)

At some point after the publication of The Amber Spyglass, Pullman became uncomfortable with the status of being a fantasy author perceived as an advocate for rationality. This new trilogy, and this book in particular, struggles with that tension. Lyra has become infatuated with modern scholars who disparage the presence of the fantastic in the world, but is also learning more about 'the secret commonwealth' of fairies, spirits and other mysterious beings that exert an influence on it. The status of these creatures is uncertain – they resist scientific scrutiny and are the domain of superstition and belief. They constitute a kind of diffused animism set against the centralised and totalitarian tendency of the Authority and his earthly servants, who remain the villains of the story.

In a crucial chapter towards the end of the book, Lyra seeks to unpack her commitment to "the Republic of Heaven" – the hopeful idea which ends The Amber Spyglass. Lyra seems to think this was a repudiation of all superstitions – adopting the misreading of some of the champions of that book. In fact, the phrase points to a democratisation of belief, where the organisational might of religious authority is dismantled and people are free to imagine whatever they want. It's an idea adopted from the 17th century English radical tradition Pullman is so enamoured with, which argued for toleration rather than atheism.

To make that point clearer, Pullman has to reveal more about the Magisterium than he has previously. Lyra and Will's achievements in The Amber Spyglass haven't worked – the villains are consolidating power and exerting it more openly. Their machinations have real-world parallels – wars in the Middle East partly driven by nefarious corporate interests, and the refugee crisis that is the unintended consequence of them. The subtext of previous Pullman books gets closer to text here. The politics is painted in primary colours, but Pullman's writing is strong enough to elicit some genuine horror at the plight of the poor and stateless, and the cruelties of authoritarianism.

The overarching plot of the book is a mess – Malcolm, Lyra and Pan have flimsy motivations for their movements. Moreover, very many of the turning points in the story lean heavily on coincidence, which weakens investment in it. Pullman is close to writing a spy thriller here – Malcolm works for a secret society fighting against the Magisterium, and has some of Smiley's talents at interrogation as well as Jason Bourne's ability to take down an enemy. Pullman is very adept at writing these action sequences, however. Individual chapters are brilliant showcases of pacing and technique, even if the book as a whole is long and unsatisfying.