The Subtle Knife is the second installment in Philip Pullman’s critically acclaimed, controversial His Dark Materials series. Lord Asriel has begun to prepare for war, Lyra Silvertongue is hunting for answers into the nature of Dust, and other characters from the first book are all off trying to keep the situation all together. While the first book only had Lyra is its primary point of view character, The Subtle Knife incorporates many more characters like Lee Scoresby and Serafina Pekkola as well as including new characters altogether.
Will Parry is twelve years old and has just killed a man, his mother might be insane, and he has discovered another world. He enters this world and finds himself in the city of Cittàgazze where he meets a young girl called Lyra, who is hunting for something called Dust and the secrets it holds. So begins their adventure in the world Will is from and the strange city of Cittàgazze.
While this book only takes place over the space of a week, it is jam packed with story. The timelines that run in the many worlds of the story are woven together to create a story that is easy to follow, yet has a lot of depth to explore if you dig beneath the surface.
Dramatic character development
The characters of Will and Lyra progress dramatically over that short period, learning much about themselves and the worlds around them. They are fully embroiled in prophecy and intrigue that reach from Will’s world to Lyra’s and every space in between.
But Will and Lyra are not the only viewpoint characters. Lee Scoresby, the American aeronaut, is off searching for Stanislaus Grumman up north while Serrafina Pekkola and the other witches search for Lyra to protect her. Lee becomes almost a fatherly figure without ever talking to Lyra in this book. He dedicates his being and his purpose to helping her. Serrafina flies back and forth, trying to coordinate the witches while helping the various parties they are allied with. She is a character of fantasy, wild and powerful yet both old and sad for the things she has seen and done.
The world in which Cittàgazze is situated is interestingly built. It is full of creatures called Wraiths, which suck the souls out of people—only adults, for some reason. Its history is most interesting, that which revolves around the titular subtle knife and the gateways between the worlds.
The rest of Lyra and Will’s tale is spent in his world. I can presume that it is our world, or at least a near identical version of it. The story revolves around the parallel Oxford and the characters that live there. It is interesting to see the contrasts between the two different cities that are both the same city as well.
The angels of the series are the most interesting creatures; they are constructs of intellect and emotion that do the bidding of The Authority. But as the story goes, many were cast from heaven for their rebellion. The reader sees several of them in book, but I expect that the third instalment will show more of them in both importance and quantity.
Against The Authority
The controversial antireligious themes that the series has often been known for come into full swing in this book. It points out a church that has a strong parallel to that of our own world’s history. Additionally, Lord Asriel is building a republic while gathering the greatest army ever amassed to fight The Authority, who is the monotheistic god of the series in a a not-so-subtle facsimile of the Judaeo-Christian God. I cannot go into it in more detail without spoiling it, but this book covers issues that have put many a reader off.
The Subtle Knife is an excellent continuation from The Golden Compass, ramping up the storytelling, characterization and thematic exploration that the first one introduced us to. It is a story of growing up and identity that manages to feel fresh and new as Pullman breathes life into it.