The Subtle Knife

Author: Philip Pullman

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: His Dark Materials (#2)

Published: 1997

I read it: April 2018 (re-read)

the subtle knife

If The Golden Compass focuses strictly on Lyra, even while cramming in plenty of other characters, The Subtle Knife slices up the primary narrative to cover several angles that inform the story at large. This decision allows the reader to understand a lot more about the grand machinery and various motives, but comes at the cost of losing Lyra’s centrality.

The new main character is Will, a boy from our when/where whose father is a lost explorer, whose mother is slowly going mad, and who is being pursued by shady men. Early on, Will commits an accidental murder, which gives him (and the book) a sense of seriousness. Will is interesting enough because we’re flung into new worlds alongside him, although he’s not as interesting as Lyra. He does have that significant first name though, and the two runaways become reluctant friends.

Aside from Will’s perspective, there are chapters that leap entirely to the witch Serafina Pekkala or the Texan Lee Scoresby. There are also new baddies, the old foe Mrs. Coulter, and a Shakespearean identity reveal of a character who had been mentioned since the early chapters of The Golden Compass. But the most intriguing new addition is not a character, it’s an object: the titular knife.

Pullman’s construction of basing each book in the series on a mysterious totem is clever and a lot of fun. The knife here is one that can cut through worlds—the user slices open a doorway, which permanently stays open unless someone manually closes it. Will becomes the bearer of such a blade, and I dig the descriptions about what it feels like to use it.

This time it was easier. Having felt it once, he knew what to search for again, and he felt the curious little snag after less than a minute. It was like delicately searching out the gap between one stitch and the next with the point of a scalpel. He touched, withdrew, touched again to make sure, and then did as the old man had said, and cut sideways with the silver edge.

How neat would that be to gently drag a knife vertically through the air until you felt that “curious little snag”?

In the book, we also learn that Lord Asriel’s plan is to amass an army to fight the ultimate battle. A prophecy says that he needs the subtle knife, “the one weapon in all the universes that could defeat the tyrant. The Authority. God. The rebel angels fell because they didn’t have anything like the knife.”

Now all is laid bare: there will be a heavenly battle waged, although it’s unclear whether there is a right or wrong side. Either way, Will and Lyra are getting swept up into it. They are aided by small pockets of loyal allies (there’s one particularly heroic and unfortunate death in this installment) but they are quickly betrayed by just as many people.

As colorful as the scenes and characters are, The Subtle Knife suffers for its layering of plot threads, crucial though they may be. I lost sight of Lyra amongst all the machinations. This is also the shortest book of the series, for better (we can get to the main event faster) and worse (the story struggles to have its own arc). The protagonists make some progress in the book, but not much, and the main takeaway is that we must now care equally for Will as we do for Lyra.

A final finding: in the version I’m reading now, there are extra pages after each book ends, labeled “Lantern Slides.” Here are slim chunks of prose that Pullman jotted down but that didn’t fit smoothly into the narrative itself. One slide from this book lends an interesting fact about daemons: “A daemon is not an animal, of course; a daemon is a person. A real cat, face to face with a daemon in cat form, would not be puzzled for a moment. She would see a human being.” Our family cat would know what’s what, apparently.

Music corner: Not long after re-reading The Golden Compass, I thought that some parts of the new Decemberists song “Severed” related to that book nicely. The title of the song itself is relevant, as well as the line “I’m allied to the winter.” For book number two, I remembered my first reading of it over a decade ago, and how I definitely had the Thrice song “A Subtle Dagger” playing in my head on repeat. The lyrics don’t really align, but again, it’s the title that really strikes me. Maybe Dustin Kensrue had read this series at some point? Although I recall that he was a big C.S. Lewis fan, and His Dark Materials is often dubbed the anti-Narnia.

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