The Subtle Knife

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The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials)  Philip Pullman, boook review How do you even begin to write about a book like this? A book so unlike any you have read before, a book so absorbing, so original, so intelligent and so magnificently written? A book that makes you want to rush home from work just so that you can pick it up again and find out what happens next? It’s not any easy thing to do, I can tell you. I am sure that many people have been put off trying the His Dark Materials series (of which this is the second installment) because it has been unfairly labelled as children’s fiction; let me assure you that this is a story that works on many levels and is just as good for adults as it is for children. It is the best fantasy adventure I have read since the Chronicles of Narnia (and that, for me, is saying a lot). So, how do I begin? Well, the opening seems like a good place…

“Will tugged at his mother’s hand and said, ‘Come on, come on…’. But his mother hung back. She was still afraid. Will looked up and down the narrow street in the evening light, along the little terraces of houses, each behind its tiny garden and its box hedge, with the sun glaring off the windows of one side and leaving the other in shadow. There wasn’t much time. People would be having their meal about now, and soon there would be other children around, to stare and comment and notice. It was dangerous to wait, but all he could do was persuade her, as usual”.

Will is a 12 year old boy living with and looking after his mother in Winchester. His mother isn’t ill. She just needs help, as she gets afraid and confused sometimes. Will cannot see or understand the things that frighten his mother; all he can do is learn how to cook and clean and care for her in the times when she is well and happy, and try to protect her from her fears in the times when she is afraid. He is alone in this task. His father, John Parry, vanished during an expedition to Canada when Will was a baby, and the authorities would just split him and his mother up, putting him into care, if they knew. Will has coped well like this for several years, but now there is a new threat – something real and tangible for him to fear as much as his mother. Now there are two men who keep coming round to their house and asking after his father, who call when he is in school to try and scare his mother into telling them what she knows about him and his whereabouts. Will knows that now is the time to find his missing father, so he takes his mother to stay with a kindly old lady who used to teach him the piano, and sets out alone to Oxford – where his father’s expedition left from.

Whist in Oxford, Will makes an unexpected discovery, but it’s not about his father. Beneath a hornbeam tree near a ring road on the outskirts of Oxford, he finds a strange window hanging in the air. The window is almost invisible from most angles, but once up close, Will can look through it into what appears to be another world. By this time, Will is exhausted and afraid of the police tracking him down as a missing child – whatever this new world contains has got to be better than the fear and uncertainty of his own. Will passes through the window into the city of Cittagazze; a city of boulevards and harbours, of cafes and beaches. And no people. The city had been deserted. Apart from one person – a fierce girl of his own age called Lyra, who has also arrived here from another world and another Oxford (the world of the first book of this trilogy, “Northern Lights”).

“It is intelligently written and doesn’t shy away from having bad things happen to its heroes.”

Philip Pullman has done a quite amazing job in weaving this trilogy of stories together. He was not content with just creating one world for his characters to act out their lives – rather, he has three that they can move between. The first is the world of religious power and scheming clerics that Lyra comes from; the second the secular late 20th century world that we ourselves are familiar with, and the third the Italian Renaissance style world of Cittagazze, a former model of peace, moderation and cooperation. There are parallels between the three worlds, and between the two lead characters. Both Will and Lyra have animal familiars (Lyra has her daemon, Will is followed around by a tabby cat), both are overshadowed by their fathers (Lord Asriel and John Parry), both are bound to an object of great power and importance (Lyra to the alethiometer or truth-compass, Will to the Subtle Knife) and both have a role to play in the impending Armageddon that forecast for the third book of the trilogy.

As an atheist, Pullman has put a domineering and corrupted church with the symbols and mythology of Christian religion at the centre of his plot, and used the easy familiarity we have with these things (such as angels) to his own advantage by recreating them in new ways and challenging our assumptions towards them. Pullman’s attitude to religion is clear enough for anyone to see – he even goes as far as the name Lyra’s father Asriel, after the biblical Azrael, the angel of death. In this trilogy, we are faced with a conflict between Authority (God, the controlling dogma of the Church – personified by Lyra’s mother, Mrs Coulter) and Free Will (the Promethean aspect, as personified by Lord Asriel). I am not going to spoil the finer details of the plot for you, but I will go as far as to say that it is very cleverly done, and the interactions of the characters between the fantasy worlds and religious mythology is nothing short of fascinating.

The Subtle Knife, in my opinion, is a superior read to Northern Lights. I feel the reader is given a altogether better introduction to Will than we were to Lyra when we first met her – although the book throws us straight into the action, we are also given time to find out what sort of person he is and are given a context for his actions straight away (something that was missing when we first met Lyra at the start of Northern Lights). Pullman doesn’t go in for the elaborate descriptions of worlds that were so beloved of Tolkien, but all the same you feel as if you know each world and can understand and appreciate what is going on within it. Although using simple themes throughout, Pullman has a way of weaving them in imaginative ways, of creating sub-plots that move the story on in many ways at once. It is intelligently written and doesn’t shy away from having bad things happen to its heroes despite being marketed for children – a very welcome change, indeed.

I feel confident in recommending The Subtle Knife to all readers aged 10 and over who enjoy a good fantasy adventure.

The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman
Published by Scholastic Point, 1997

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Subtle Knife, The
by Phillip Pullman

One Comment on "The Subtle Knife"

  1. eilidhcatriona
    21/07/2011 at 14:54 Permalink

    I was blown away by Northern Lights, but I actually found The Subtle Knife hard to get into – it just didn’t seem to be holding my attention. Perhaps I need to give it another go.

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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