Newest Review: ... ** The reader who has wallowed with glee in the world of Lyra, so gorgeously described by Pullman in Northern Lights, may well be both sta... more
Pullman cuts loose
The Subtle Knife - Philip Pullman
Member Name: davidbuttery
The Subtle Knife - Philip Pullman
Advantages: Lots of action, parallel worlds are believable, those last two chapters -- wow
Disadvantages: Will does irritate me just a tiny bit
** The last shall be first **
It's not often that I'll begin a review of a novel by talking about the book's ending, but in the case of The Subtle Knife, the middle volume of Philip Pullman's extremely fine His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy, I'm going to make an exception. No, don't worry, I'm not going to give away the details of precisely what happens... but what I will say is that in my view the last two chapters of this work are the strongest in the whole novel, and by themselves contain as much drama, excitement and heartbreak as you will find in an awful lot of entire books. One particular scene on a rocky mountainside is almost unbearable.
Unlike its predecessor ( Northern Lights ) this book is not really capable of being read as a standalone adventure: you must know what has happened earlier to make any sense at all of what happens here. However, right at the beginning of The Subtle Knife the reader is plunged without warning into - quite literally - an entirely unexpected new world: our own. We meet Will, a 12-year-old English boy who as the story opens is trying to find a safe place for his mentally ill mother - he is being hunted by mysterious figures after an equally mysterious writing case belonging to his late father... one of whom he accidentally kills during their break-in.
** Something old, something new **
The reader who has wallowed with glee in the world of Lyra, so gorgeously described by Pullman in Northern Lights, may well be both startled and a little disappointed by this seemingly wrenching change of scene. Pullman seems to have given up on fantasy and instead to have started writing a modern-day thriller. (Well, a 1990s one: cellphones and computers exist, but at one point Will needs to find a phone box to call somebody.) Be patient, however, as you will be meeting Lyra again before long. However, it will be in neither her world nor Will's and our own: as some editions (including mine) state quite clearly in an introductory note, The Subtle Knife moves between no fewer than three different universes.
Many people will remember the controversial nature of His Dark Materials in certain religious circles, especially in the United States, but may have been surprised by how tame the first book actually was on such matters. It is in this second volume where things gradually begin to make sense from that point of view, though still not so strongly as they do in the final book, The Amber Spyglass. It is in The Subtle Knife, for example, that we first come across Pullman's idea of angels - and in several ways they are not quite the beings that the average vicar would probably have taught about! The nature of the subtle knife itself, only partially revealed in this volume, might also give certain denominations pause.
** Pullman book in "not perfect" shock **
The Subtle Knife is a little shorter than Northern Lights, at 340 pages rather than the first book's 400, and in truth I have a sneaking pleasure that this is so. It's still a very good tale indeed, but I don't feel that it is quite up to the astonishingly high standards of its predecessor. Once or twice I did find my attention starting to wander, and - although it thankfully wasn't dragged out for all that long - there was one major plot point where the hint in the text seemed utterly obvious and where I was therefore less than convinced that none of the (generally intelligent) characters who knew it would have put two and two together.
My other slight unhappiness is with the character of Will himself. I don't think he's as interesting and deep a person as is Lyra, and I think part of the reason for that is that he's just too good. That's not to say that he doesn't have his flaws, but while he just about avoids becoming some sort of superhero he does seem to behave in a tremendously principled and well-thought-out way that it's hard to believe a lost and frightened 12-year-old child would. Lyra, as we saw in Northern Lights, does and says all sorts of things that go wrong, or are received poorly, or that put others in danger. Will seems to hark back to 1950s "strong and steadfast" young-adult heroes, and it's a little annoying.
Those small complaints aside, The Subtle Knife is still a very readable book, and it's nice that Pullman brings back the odd minor character from Northern Lights and develops them into central figures - some of them moving between worlds as much as do Will and Lyra. (I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that Will and Lyra do meet and join forces quite early on.) It gradually becomes clear just what a vast canvas this trilogy is painted on, and although by the end of the book it's still unclear exactly what part the two children will play in the course of events, we can be fairly sure that they will be at the centre of whatever transpires in the final volume.
** Buying and verdict **
I bought this particular edition largely because of its gorgeous cover design, but as with the first volume in this issue it also includes as an Appendix a selection of "papers", in this case those of Dr Stanislaus Grumman, the Arctic explorer. Don't read these until after you have finished the novel, not least because the Appendix's opening page includes a major spoiler as to Grumman's identity! You shouldn't have to pay more than £5 or so for a paperback copy of The Subtle Knife, and although it's not worth the utterly gushing praise I lavished on its prequel it's still a four-and-a-half star book - lifted to five by those beautifully terrifying last two chapters.
Summary: Doesn't quite maintain the stellar standard of book one, but still a very meaty and satisfying read