Posted on August 10, 2017
31. ‘The Subtle Knife’ by Philip Pullman
In preparation for the release of The Book of Dust in October, Philip Pullman’s new addition to the His Dark Materials series, I am rereading the original series, and reliving my childhood. This week I finished The Subtle Knife, the second volume in the ‘trilogy’.
[This review will contain plot spoilers. You can read my review of the first volume, Northern Lights, here.]
First off, I have to say that the opening of this book is masterful, particularly the introduction of Will. (Oh, how I love Will.) Pullman establishes early on that Will likes cats, so it makes total sense that he would pause to watch one in Oxford, and thus discover the window to another world. Even better, we learn later on that his connection goes deeper than simple affection for animals; he sympathises with them deeply because on some level he associates them with his helpless mother. It goes on: when Will first meets Lyra, his reaction to her has already been explained; he’s used to caring for his peculiar mother, so of course he would take Lyra’s strangeness in his stride and try to help her. It just goes to show that Pullman has absolute mastery over his characters, and it’s astonishing to read.
The Subtle Knife certainly feels like a middle book, but it’s the best kind of middle book. It’s less self-contained than Northern Lights, but I don’t think it really suffers for that. Old characters who we already love return, while new characters are introduced seamlessly and become as important to us by the end of this volume as the characters we have been with since the beginning. Will is the prime example of this. We learn quickly that he is a person of contradictions: fiercely independent and also desperate for someone to look after him. His and Lyra’s relationship, just budding in this volume, is perfect: they begin to change for each other, and understand each other better than they have anyone else before. Will is also something of an ambassador for the reader; he’s from our world, and when he sees Pantalaimon, Lyra’s daemon, he puts into words exactly what we’ve been feeling since the first book:
“Will looked at the two of them, the skinny, pale-eyed girl with her black rat-daemon now sitting in her arms, and felt profoundly alone.”
As for those we already love, they go on arcs that deepen their characters and make us love them even more. Case in point: Lee Scoresby. He’s a lovable guy in Northern Lights, straight-talking, useful in a tight spot. But in The Subtle Knife we learn so much more about him, both through his daemon, Hester – ever calm in a crisis – and through hints at his past, with his mother’s ring. In this volume, Lee embraces his role in this unknown war wholeheartedly. Gone is the balloon-for-hire attitude of the first book (Lee asking Serafina for payment did appeal to the freelancer in me); now Lee is all about looking out for Lyra. So much so that he’ll die for her. And the final sentence of the chapter ‘Alamo Gulch’ will break your heart.
Also in this book we begin to see Lord Asriel’s grand plans, and the enormous task that lies in wait for the third volume. Asriel is gathering forces from multiple worlds, building an enormous fortress and preparing to wage war on God, no less. The Old Testament seems to be coming round again, and some of our characters are going to have to play certain roles: by the end of this book we certainly have an Eve, an Adam and a serpent in place.
This is my fourth or fifth time reading this book, and the scenes that stuck most clearly in my memory were those involving Will and Lyra: finding Cittàgazze, the fight for the subtle knife, the heart-pounding theft of the alethiometer, and the Spectre ‘eating’ Tullio. I had almost entirely forgotten the chapters that revolved around Serafina and Lee (I wasn’t even sure ‘Alamo Gulch’ was in this volume), and I had somehow forgotten Will’s reunion with his father. Of course, now that we have met Mary Malone, I am pumped for her chapters in The Amber Spyglass.
As for the ending, I hadn’t noticed before the parallel between The Subtle Knife and Northern Lights. Just like Lyra seeing Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter (her parents) reunited, this book also ends with a messed-up adult relationship seen through the eyes of a child. This time it is Will seeing his father with the witch Juta Kamainen, and he simply cannot understand why they behave the way they do. He doesn’t understand love. He will.
The Subtle Knife does an excellent job of deepening everything we know from the first book, and opening our eyes to even bigger things to come. Maybe as a standalone it doesn’t work so well, but how could it? Maybe I love this volume because of the anticipation it makes me feel for the next one. If that’s the case, then The Subtle Knife does its job perfectly. I adore it.
“Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others?”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here. (I highly recommend this hardback edition.)