The Subtle Knife
Reviewed: August 13, 2004
By: Phillip Pullman
326 pages, $13.00
The Subtle Knife is volume two of a trilogy
called His Dark Materials. Volume one was called either The
Golden Compass or The Northern Lights, depending on
whether you picked up a British or American edition. Either
title fits, because both things have a lot to do with the
development of the plot. In the first book we meet a girl
named Lyra, who lives in a world where beings have souls (or
daemons) which live externally with them, shapeshifting
entities which assume a permanent form only when it becomes
clear what sort of adult a person is going to become.
Lyra becomes involved in the plots of her estranged parents.
Her mother is a Power in the Church which dominates her world
and is connected with a nasty experiment in which children are
separated from their daemons in order to gain access to a type
of energy. Her father opposes the Church, but is working on
his own plots, having to do with what we would call the
Northern Lights, but which is called Dark Matter in her world.
When we left her, Lyra had walked off into the Aurora and was
crossing between worlds.
The Subtle Knife does not immediately pick up
that plot thread, but instead introduces us to our own world
and to a boy named Will, who is looking after his brain
damaged mother and trying to find out something about his
missing father. Other people are trying to find out about his
father as well and 12 year old Will is placed in the
incredible position of having killed one of them, quite by
accident, before we are very far into the story.
On the run, he stumbles across something which which could
only be likened to a tear in the air, on the other side of
which he finds himself in the same world to which Lyra and her
daemon, Pantalaimon, had journeyed. In this world malevolent
beings called the Specters are separating adult humans from
their souls, giving them a spiritual and intellectual
lobotomy. Children are safe until they hit a certain stage of
puberty, but that means that the only functioning humans in
the area are children, and the end result is a most unstable
Meanwhile, back in Lyra's world, which has the feel of late
19th century England about it, those who were Lyra's allies in
her original quest are trying to find out what happened to
her, and those who were trying to capture her are trying to do
the same. We begin to get the impression that there might be a
link to the three worlds that we have seen so far, that there
might be more, and that all of them might be in danger because
of events in Lyra's world, or maybe events in that in-between
place where Lyra and Will are trapped.
Certainly Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter, wants the artifacts
that Lyra and Will have found. The first is the Golden
Compass, or altheiometer, with which a talented or learned
individual may discern truth, see the unseen, and learn all
manner of things in response to the right questions. Lyra has
that, and she seems to be its natural guardian. After their
initial adventures in the Children's World, Will becomes the
Bearer of the Subtle Knife, a mystical device with two edges.
One will cut effortlessly through any material. The other will
cut and seal the ways between the worlds.
Evil forces are after these devices. What they intend to do
with them is anyone's guess, but the horrors of the Children's
World are a clear indication of what they can do in the wrong
hands, for it was a wielder of the Knife who left the Specters
There's much more in this book. There are adventures with
witches and last ditch battles on mountain tops, as well as
aerial chases and devious intrigues. Our two young
protagonists have a lot to learn about each other, and the
mystery of Will's father's life and disappearance in Alaska
(yes - a northern connection) could be worth a story all by
Pullman leaves us with a a lot of unresolved questions and
what amounts to another cliffhanger at the end of this book.
The good news is that the final volume, The Amber
Spyglass, is already available.
Individually and together, the books have been winning a lot
of awards and attracting a lot of attention. They are often
compared to J.K. Rowling's Potter books in terms of their
impact on young readers, though they are quite different in
theme, content and style. Pullman's novels have a touch of
Mervyn Peake in them, where Rowling's feel a bit more like
Roald Dahl meeting Enid Blyton. His Dark Materials also takes
place in a much shorter time span, so there isn't same degree
of change in the characters. Nor are they the complete focus
of the stories. Unlike Harry Potter, the action does not
revolve solely around Lyra and Will; there is a lot going on
in other places.
Still, I'd wager that if you like Rowling (whether adult or
youngster) you'll also like Pullman.