September 29, 2009

Rabid Reads: "The Subtle Knife" by Philip Pullman

Title The Subtle Knife (Book Two of His Dark Materials)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Knopf Books for Children (1997)
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Pages: 326
ISBN 0679879250
ISBN 13: 9780679879251

Note: As part of Banned Books Week, I thought I'd revisit one of my all-time favorite series of books, and one of the most challenged children's series anywhere, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Catholic school's in particular decided to take great offense to Pullman's work when the film adaptation of The Golden Compass hit theaters in 2007.

I've already blogged about the first book in the series,
The Golden Compass, so if you're interested in reading that then simply click on the title and it will take you there.

Now, as fair warning, I will say that there are going to be SPOILERS for the first book mentioned in this review. Unavoidable, really, since this novel picks up almost immediately after the first. If you haven't read this series, then I suggest you trail off to another blog post or try to find a spoiler-free review of The Subtle Knife--good luck with that.

Okay, so the first book left off with Lyra's universe opened up to another universe, one even closer to our own. Her best friend is dead and she's after the killer who has escaped into the other world. She follows and finds Will, a boy from our universe, or one almost identical to it. Together they explore an abandoned landscape haunted by specters that feed on the souls of adults, leaving all of the children unattended in the city of Cittagazze.

I expected The Subtle Knife to be the continuation of Lyra Silvertongues quest for the secret of Dust and to get justice for the wrongs committed by her parents, each of whom have played a role in turning Lyra's life upside-down and killing more than one of her friends and acquaintances. So, I was more than a little surprised to find this story put her on the back burner, so to speak, in favor of Will and his story. He was an interesting character in spite of a couple of clich├ęs, like the missing father and mysterious men chasing him. At least Pullman gives Will some dimensions and his conflicts with his own morals--he killed a man who had broken into his home--help to keep pace with Lyra, even making her character seem a bit two-dimensional in spots.

The broader scope of the trilogy's story takes shape with this book, far more than with The Golden Compass, as the forces against the "Authority" rear their heads and it's revealed there is going to be a huge showdown between the entity that created all of the universes and those who feel he's worn out his welcome--that whole "anti-God" thing that got the less tolerant among the ranks in a tizzy.

There's so much more to the story than what can be dismissed as a blasphemous and deplorable series of books. Lyra and Will grow as characters, and we even see some new shades to Lord Asriel, Ms. Coulter, and a few others. I was disappointed, however, to see the diminished roles of Iorek Byrnison and Lee Scoresby. They were very intriguing characters from the first book I had hoped, in vain, would carry on at full speed through the rest of the series.

For some, The Subtle Knife is the weak spot in the trilogy, and they'll all have different reasons. For me, I think it held par with the first novel, even though it carried a much different tone. There's still the sense of foreboding and adventure, but the landscape is so alien compared to the first story that it's like The Golden Compass was little more than prelude.

You will definitely need to read the first book of this trilogy if you want any hope of following along with the events of the second book, and connecting with the established characters therein.


  1. I thought this was a really well-written series, though some of the imagery used was a little obscure, especially in the third book.

  2. Gosh I love these books so much and it's terrible that some people have actually got them banned from libraries.

  3. i actually really love the subtle knife! its my favourite out of the three. there's some amazing introductions of characetrs - the wicthes get a big part in it - and it really sets up the question of sin for the third book. awesome series, its one of my absolute faves.