The Subtle Knife

by Philip Pullman

Cover image

Series: His Dark Materials #2
Publisher: Del Ray
Copyright: 1997
Printing: May 1998
ISBN: 0-345-41336-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 288

Buy at Powell's Books

Picking up shortly after where The Golden Compass left off, The Subtle Knife is the second entry in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Despite a significantly different setting, it builds heavily on the previous book and should not be read out of sequence.

The Subtle Knife is unfortunately something of a disappointment, particularly in its introduction. Moving away from Lyra and her wonderfully well-imagined native world, the second book opens with Will, a child in a modern Earth-like world who is taking care of his paranoid schizophrenic mother. Many pages are spent establishing Will's story and his discovery of a window that leads to the strangely abandoned city of Cittàgazze that turns out to be a junction point of sorts between worlds. Eventually he does meet up with Lyra, and updates on the plot from the first novel are provided as intervals following the witch Serafina Pekkala, but the majority of this book simply isn't as interesting as The Golden Compass.

Much of the reason is setting. Lyra's world combined an intriguing alternate history with multiple great fantasy ideas, not the least of which are the daemons. Will's completely normal world of well-meaning, dangerous adults, abusive children, and far too much responsibility for his age is just too normal in contrast; it throws the reader partly out of the flow of an excellent fantasy story and, at the beginning, makes Lyra's world feel a touch unreal. Much to the relief of the reader, this improves significantly later in the book once Lyra gets involved, enters Will's supposedly normal world, and starts shaking things up. Cittàgazze, similarly, is a sketchy, largely empty world that has little appeal until more than halfway through the book when it produces the subtle knife, a well-described magical artifact that lives up to the inventiveness of the previous book.

Will as protagonist is another complaint. He's a competent enough child hero, the private, misunderstood, quiet one who blends in while carrying far more responsibility than one would expect for someone of his age. Pullman doesn't do a bad job with him, and his comparative maturity in some areas when paired with Lyra is realistic. Unfortunately, he's simply not as audacious, admirable, or exciting as Lyra, and I breathed a sigh of relief each time Lyra got involved and made things happen at a faster pace. I want to read more books about Lyra; Will I can take or leave, particularly when he spends large portions of the book nursing an injured hand. (I know it has a grand, storied history, but I find the unhealing wound more often annoying and frustrating than useful as a story element.)

It isn't until the last half of the book, when the plot surrounding Will's father becomes clearer, the subtle knife enters the story, and the normality of Will's world has been shaken up, that The Subtle Knife reaches the excitement of The Golden Compass. It does get there, and there are highlights worthy of anything in the previous book: Lyra's take on dark matter experiments, for example, or the realization of what happened to Will's father. Still, one leaves the book with the feeling that very little of significance happened apart from meeting Will and the acquisition of the eponymous artifact, and the settings in which that waiting game happened fell short of the expectations set by the first volume. I hope the next book is better and features comparatively more of Pullman's imaginative fantasy elements.

I haven't yet mentioned Pullman's controversial inverted Christian mythology, the most widely discussed aspect of these books. That's because only in this book does it start to appear in earnest, and still we have only hints. It's clear that a war is on the horizon, and Lord Asriel is developing into a Miltonian figure of towering ambition, but so far the effects on the plot have only been secondary. I like what I've seen so far, but there isn't enough to comment at length. The final book seems likely to remedy that.

This is not a bad book; I enjoyed it and finished it off in a day. It's just a letdown after The Golden Compass and isn't up to that standard of inventiveness and characterization. I think Pullman attempted to avoid the second-book duldrums of a trilogy with a dramatic switch of setting and viewpoint character, but I don't think the tactic was successful. Will can't quite hold his own, and in the end this is more a character-shuffling slowdown, setting up the series for the grand finale.

Followed by The Amber Spyglass.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-10-30

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