The Subtle Knife

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for Northern Lights. You can read my review of this novel [here].

The Subtle Knife was written by Philip Pullman and first published in 1997. It forms the second part of the epic His Dark Materials trilogy, preceded by Northern Lights (published in America as The Golden Compass – 1995) and followed by The Amber Spyglass (2000). The novel picks up shortly after Northern Lights left off and so you really need to read the novels in sequence to fully appreciate them.

Will Parry has always believed that his mother’s paranoia was some sort of sickness, yet everything changes when two sinister men show up at his house and begin to pester her for information on his missing father. Their harassment only serves to make his mother worse and, when the men eventually break into his home, Will accidentally kills one of them in a struggle.

Knowing that he will soon be hunted by the police, or worse, Will escapes into the night with a briefcase full of his father’s letters. On the outskirts of Oxford, he accidentally discovers a window to another world – the oddly deserted city of Cittàgazze – and it is here that he first meets Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, and learns about their escape from their world.

As Lyra and Will get to know each other and explore the Cittàgazze, they come to learn of the existence of a device that can be used to cut holes between worlds. However, little do they know that their discovery is linked to a greater war. Far away, unknown to them, Lyra’s allies search for her. They know that Lord Asriel is building an army and has plans to defeat the Magisterium by slaying the Authority that they worship. Although the angels failed in this task decades ago, the witches fear that this time he will succeed and their prophecies tell that Lyra will somehow be instrumental in his victory…

Although I haven’t read it in well over a decade, The Subtle Knife was one of my favourite books as a teen and I was pleased to find that it still largely stands the test of time. Yet I must warn readers that this book is even less accessible to young teens than Northern Lights. It’s a strange novel because it doesn’t really feel much like a children’s book, despite its twelve-year-old protagonists. The story itself is relatively straight forward but the themes that underpin them are deeply complex and may not be so easily understood by younger readers.

His Dark Materials is a massively ambitious trilogy. Although it’s been heralded as a masterpiece of children’s literature, I’m really of two minds about this description. On the one hand, I really admire it. I’m a believer that you shouldn’t talk down the children – a big problem that I have with a lot of teen literature is that it treats its audience as though they’re idiots. Yet, on the other hand, The Subtle Knife often feels more as though it’s targeted at adults. It raises some deep theological concepts, ranging from the nature of innocence to problems with organised religion to the perception of reality. A number of different classical works are indirectly referenced, ranging from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Plato’s The Republic. While children may enjoy the story of Lyra and Will’s adventures, I feel that a lot of this subtext is likely to go whizzing over their heads.

In terms of plot, the story has escalated rapidly from how things were left in Northern Lights. While the friction between the Magisterium (the Catholic Church of Lyra’s world) and Lord Asriel’s research into Dust was referenced in the first book, the opening of the portal near Svalbard has caused this to escalate into a full war. On one side, Mrs Coulter leads a terrifying army of the severed, on the other Lord Asriel recruits rebels from across a multitude of worlds to finish the job that the fallen angels started.

The result is epic and deeply original, yet still felt as though it was missing something fundamental. In my opinion, the main problem is that Pullman’s ideas are just far too grand to be contained by this novel. The Subtle Knife is a smorgasbord – it contains a bit everything but its scope is so broad that it lacks finer detail. While we spend a lot of time learning about Will, Lyra and Cittàgazze, we only really see glimpses of the bigger picture. As Lord Asriel doesn’t even appear in the story in person, a lot of this is relayed to the reader through third party exposition and therefore is never truly focused on in the novel.

Because of this The Subtle Knife definitely feels the touch of middle novel syndrome. It really exists to move the key characters into the places that they need to be for The Amber Spyglass. It’s not a bad book by any means (in fact, I feel that it’s better paced than Northern Lights which dragged a little in places) but the perspective does jump around a lot more this time around. It’s not just Lyra’s story anymore. Lee Scoresby and Serafina Pekkala have now been promoted to primary cast members, as well as newcomers Will and Mary Malone. While this is necessary to keep the story flowing, I would have liked for there to be less toing and froing, as I felt that none of the characters really got the focus that they deserved.

I should also note that this story ended on a shamefully abrupt cliff hanger that really felt as though it came out of left field. I won’t spoil it for you here but this is always something that really frustrates me. It meant that The Subtle Knife does not hold its own at all, breaking on such a note of uncertainty that the reader is obliged to read on just to find out what the fate of a very important character will be.

You may be starting to think that I didn’t like this novel after all, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. For me, the main draw of The Subtle Knife is its characters. I cared about all of them deeply and certainly didn’t want for them to come to any harm (which is unfortunate, as Pullman has no trouble tearing out my heart and crushing it). Although I did think that Will and Lyra often seem older than twelve, they are both still lovable protagonists and showed noticeable growth and maturity as the story progressed. This is especially true of Lyra, who is less trusting and innocent than she was in Northern Lights. The increased focus on Lee and Serafina is also nice, as adults were not painted in a good light in the first book, but this allows Pullman to show that they’re not all as terrible as Mrs Coulter.

Anyhow, I think I’ve said enough. The Subtle Knife is not perfect but is an incredibly strong sequel to Northern Lights and is certainly worth reading if you like epic fantasies with religious overtones. I really look forward to seeing how everything ties up in the final book.

The Subtle Knife can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on

5 Comments (+add yours?)

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