The Subtle Knife is the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy from Philip Pullman. Of the three, this is my favorite as it introduces a new protagonist, Will Parry. Will is a 12 year old boy (the same age as Lyra) from our world. This sequel differs from the first as more worlds and characters are introduced. In The Golden Compass we followed Lyra. This volume adds more characters while expanding roles of old ones.
The book follows Will at first. The resourceful youth who cares for his ailing mother is evading police because he accidentally killed an intruder. While fleeing, he discovers and invisible window in mid air that leads him to the deserted city of Cittàgazze. There he finds Lyra, who was taken there after the events of the last book. She then follows Will back to his world.
Along with protagonists Lyra and Will, Serafina Pekkala (the witch queen from Compass) and Lee Scoresby have extended passages. Serafina is searching for the missing Lyra. Unable to find her, she instead learns that the Magisterium and Mrs. Coulter (Lyra’s mother) are torturing witches to learn of the prophecy and how it involves Lyra. Serafina and her group instead join forces with Lord Asriel (Lyra’s father), who is amassing forces from all worlds to destroy the corrupt Authority (essentially, the Judeo-Christian God). Meanwhile, Scoresby is in search of the explorer Stanislaus Grumman who posses an object that protects it’s holder.
The intrigue and revelations were enthralling, especially when the titular subtle knife came into play. After Lyra’s alethiometer was stolen, her and Will were tasked with retrieving the knife in exchange. The knife is in Cittàgazze, where no adult can go. The world has been over run by soul stealing Spectres that are invisible to children, making them safe. Will loses two fingers on his left hand during it’s retrieval, marking him as the new bearer. The knife itself has two edges. One that can cut through any material, the other can open windows into other worlds.
I found the concept of tears fascinating. While the idea of multiple worlds with people traveling between them was nothing new, the mechanic of travel and more over, the ramifications of carelessly doing so was interesting twist. Looking at this in retrospect, it’s easy to see how this was building to the melancholic finale for the series.
Pullmans attack on religion was in full force with this book as Asriel declared his intention to kill God, angels showing up, and many characters expressing their distaste for organized religion. This could be turn off for some staunch believers, but for those with an open mind, or willing to read someone else’s opinion, it’s still a safe read.
Because of the domestic failure of The Golden Compass’ theatrical release, The Subtle Knife was never made. While the film was very success internationally, it wasn’t enough for the studio to green light the sequel. It’s strange how much this has changed where films that completely bomb in the U.S. have rushed sequels as they are fantastic successes else where (see Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters).
I still remember the slightly jarring, but still enjoyable shift in tone and presentation from the first to the second book. I knew nothing about the series other then it existed when I first read through them, which to me is the best way to experience a story. Every twist and surprise can fully impact and wash over you. I was enthralled as I read the tale and could not put the books down.
The Subtle Knife = Less Iorek Byrnison 😦