The Subtle Knife The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman
Publisher: Knopf
Year: 2007
Pages: 368

It may interest you to read the my review of the first book in this series, The Golden Compass

The Subtle Knife is the second book in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It is, in ways both literal and figurative, a dramatic departure from the first. It also suffers somewhat from the middle-of-trilogy burden, which is to contain a satisfying narrative locally while also priming the reader for the resolution of the larger narrative arc in the final episode.

The Subtle Knife does two things very quickly: (1) it introduces us to the second of many worlds or dimensions that the trilogy will deal with, and (2) it introduces the second major protagonist of the novel, an unrealistically mature 12-year-old boy named Will. Will, within a few pages, kills a man, and this, I take it, is supposed to be important.

This book, unlike its predecessor, takes a “multiple narratives” approach, flitting from group to group as they start to converge. It’s thick with dramatic irony, since the reader learns things from one character that another is trying to find out. In truth, I thought The Subtle Knife was a weaker novel than the first—richer in characterization, but much lighter on world-building. Kind of presumptive, actually: some behavior (like that of Dr. Malone) was completely unbelievable, and felt like I was reading an English 101 short story where things happen purely by the writer’s force of will and not any sort of normal or natural impetus on the part of the characters. Lord Asriel has opened up a portal between worlds, and is apparently preparing for an assault on the Authority. Meanwhile, Lyra and Will attempt to find the latter’s missing father while at the same time being hunted by several different groups of people. Lee Scoresby adventures with Stanislaus Grumman in a balloon. And witches of all stripes either help or hinder our heroes. All the while, the fiendish Ms. Coulter manages to be an evil bitch everywhere she goes.

This sounds harsh; for all that, The Subtle Knife is a good fantasy novel, dark with portent, more violent, more mysterious. The end finally does broach the controversial “War on God,” though I’m still waiting to see where it goes with it. It’s clear by this point that Pullman’s trilogy is a sort of recasting of Milton, but with more fantasy schtick and a bit of the children-as-innocent motif that I found so prevalent in The Children’s Hospital. I’m curious to see where the final books takes the series.

§1952 · January 9, 2008 · Tags: , , , , , ·

2 Comments to “The Subtle Knife”

  1. Chris says:

    Yeah, definitely not as good as the first. Still worth a read. I think I’m torn about the third though. Good stuff, more of whats "controversial" but I’m interested to hear your take on the rest of it.

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