The Subtle Knife

“What were these mysteries? Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others?”

Philip Pullman

The second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Subtle Knife introduces a brand-new leading character into its merry mix of metaphysics, witchcraft and blatant blasphemy: twelve-year-old Will, a boy from our world on the run after *accidentally* pushing an intruder down the stairs, escapes through a window between the worlds into Cittagazze, a city filled with soul-eating Spectres of Indifference (spot the allegory, folks). There, he meets Lyra, herself newly come through Lord Asriel’s hole-in-the-sky gap between worlds; together, they…

…Well, what do they do, actually?

This is the problem with The Subtle Knife: like so many middle-trilogy books, it doesn’t work as a story on its own. The novel feels directionless and bitty: Lyra and Will’s goals are very different (Lyra’s looking for information about Dust, and Will wants to find his missing father) and much of the book seems to involve the children trailing fairly randomly around Cittagazze and Oxford in the hope that something useful will come out of it all. And, yes, there are significant plot moments, but they’re significant for the next book, not for this one; none of the various strands established here really go anywhere, or they don’t go there quickly enough to fall within the scope of The Subtle Knife. It’s perhaps appropriate that this is the book in which we learn of Asriel’s audacious plan: a war on Heaven, a continuation of the rebellion of Satan in Paradise Lost. It’s here that titanic forces begin to gather in preparation, and that’s just what The Subtle Knife feels like: a gathering of force, a deep breath in, a laying of plans for the massive, all-encompassing enterprise that will be The Amber Spyglass. (Re-reading is a marvellous thing, isn’t it?)

That’s not to say it’s a badly-written book, of course. Pullman’s prose is still delightful, simple and yet somehow magical, natural but with occasional flashes of feeling that light up a page of dialogue with surprise:

“Anbaromagnetism. Like anbaric. Those lights,” she said, pointing up at the ornamental streetlight. “They’re anbaric.”

“We call them electric.”

“Electric…that’s like electrum. That’s a kind of stone, a jewel, made out of gum from trees. There’s insects in it, sometimes.”

“You mean amber,” he said, and they both said, “Anbar…”

And each of them saw their own expression on the other’s face. Will remembered that moment for a long time afterward.

There are still mysteries, and strange happenings; the supporting characters’ stories are interesting, taking us as they do through a world thrown into disarray by Asriel’s experiment, a world of melting permafrost and shrinking seas. There’s a feeling of vastness, of a universe (multiverse?) in shift, of titanic powers moving beyond the characters’ heads, of ordinary people trying to make their way in extraordinary times. It’s undoubtedly ambitious, it’s just that The Subtle Knife is weak by comparison to the behemoths that bookend it (Northern Lights on one side, The Amber Spyglass on the other), and the cliffhanger doesn’t help.

Still, it’s not the worst bridge-book I’ve read, so that’s something to be thankful for.


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