Ears on the Odyssey

Review: The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth

Dear readers, could there be a better time to be a Philip Pullman fan? All at once we’ve been gifted a well-adapted TV series, a new trilogy that is both prequel AND sequel to the original books, and audiobook adaptations of those books read by none other than Michael Sheen (consequently, it’s also a great time to be a Michael Sheen fan). The audiobook production of the first book in the new trilogy, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, was awarded an Odyssey honor for 2018, my committee year. So I was delighted when I was given the chance to review the second installment in the trilogy, The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth. Spoilers for the original trilogy and TV series follow. 

While La Belle Sauvage featured Lyra Silvertongue, the heroine of the His Dark Materials trilogy, as only an infant, The Secret Commonwealth jumps ahead to find Lyra as a young woman of 20, several years after her return from the world of the dead and the sealing of the openings between worlds that took place at the end of The Amber Spyglass. Though her studies at St. Sophia’s College at Oxford are going well enough, Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon are deeply troubled by their deteriorating relationship. Things have not been the same between she and Pan since they discovered that, after Lyra abandoned Pan to enter the world of the dead, they could separate and put large distances between themselves, unlike most humans. But for reasons neither of them can entirely understand, they have increasingly less and less patience for each other, and have lost the ability to even speak civilly together. Pan takes to exploring the city at night rather than sleep by Lyra’s side, and it is on one such excursion that he witnesses a brutal murder conducted by two mysterious men. Pan recovers the victim’s journal, and what he and Lyra read inside sets them, as well as Malcolm Polstead, the hero of La Belle Sauvage, off on perilous adventures across Europe and the Levant — with several representatives and factions of the Magisterium hot on their tails.

Michael Sheen continues to prove himself to be a gifted narrator and a perfect match for this series. In attempting to describe exactly what makes his narration distinctive, I told my husband that Sheen isn’t really reading the book, he’s performing the book. For one thing, he is possessed of the apparent ability to replicate almost every accent in existence and create a litany of distinctive and hilarious voices. These skills go beyond mere entertainment value for this particular title, which as it travels through several countries and features a large and varied cast, could be rendered utterly confusing in the wrong reader’s hands. I found his performance of Lyra particularly satisfying – he gives her a strong, straightforward, no-nonsense voice, right in the middle of his register. But what makes his performance shine is the attention he pays to the narration in between the dialogue. Sheen has a way of manipulating pace, breathing, and volume to make words sound like what they mean; you can feel him paying attention to every single syllable and its potential. There are no thoughtless phrasings in his performance, and no holding back. It’s the kind of production that makes you want to sit on the floor and stare up at your speaker like you’re a child being read to by a special storyteller; you’re slightly in awe of what you’re hearing. The only thing I could say that nears critique is that to fully enjoy the title, you should really have read or listened to everything else in both series so far, and that listeners should be aware that this entry falls fully into the YA genre, with graphically described violence and an attempted rape. 

The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman, narrated by Michael Sheen. 19 hours, 45 minutes. Penguin Random House Audio Publishing, 2019.

Darla Salva Cruz is the Youth Services Consultant for the Suffolk Cooperative Library System in New York. She is a current member of ALSC, YALSA and REFORMA. She has served on the 2018 Odyssey Committee, is currently serving on Quicklists Consulting Committee, and reviews for School Library Journal. Darla has been a voracious audio listener since at least 8 years old, when she remembers listening to Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt on repeat all summer long. @broughtabook

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