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The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials): 2/3 Paperback – 5 Mar 2007
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Will is twelve, and he's just killed a man. Now he's on the run, determined to discover the truth about the father he's never known. Then he steps through a window into another world - where soul-eating Spectres haunt the streets of a city, and a strange girl called Lyra is searching for Dust. His mission and hers are mysteriously linked, and together they must find a powerful and secret object that people from many worlds would kill to possess.
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The story has escalated rapidly from Northern Lights, as Lyra unknowingly finds herself sandwiched between two factions - the Magisterium in their crusade against Dust, and Lord Asriel who has now set his sights on destroying the being that they worship (known as the Authority). The result is deeply original, yet still felt as though it was lacking something fundamental. I think the main problem is that Pullman's ideas are far too grand for this novel. The Subtle Knife is a bit of a smorgasbord - it contains a bit of everything but its scope is so broad that it lacks finer detail. We see glimpses of the bigger picture - of Lord Asriel's fortress and Mrs Coulter's ever growing greed - but there isn't enough room in the novel to really focus on any aspect.
In this, The Subtle Knife is a bit of a middle-novel. 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 novel by any means - in fact, I think it's better paced than Northern Lights - however, the perspective does jump around a lot between important parties. It's not just Lyra's story anymore. Will, Mary Malone, Lee Scoresby and Serafina Pekkala also are the focus of chapters and so the 3rd person narrative flits between them and the various worlds that they travel to. The novel also ends on a very sudden cliffhanger, leaving it feeling incomplete as a whole.
Yet where The Subtle Knife really grabbed me was its characters. I cared about all of them deeply and never wanted any of them to come to any harm (which is unfortunate, as Pullman has no trouble tearing out my heart and crushing it). Although Will and Lyra often seem older than pre-teens, they are still both really likeable protagonists and showed noticeable growth and maturity throughout the story. The twists and turns in their destiny are also compelling, drawing the reader in and leaving you wondering how things can possibly turn out okay in The Amber Spyglass.
All in all, this is not a perfect read but is a strong sequel to Northern Lights. I really look forward to seeing how it all wraps up in the final book.
When Lyra takes the "wormhole" (His Dark Materials is really sci-fi in a wizard's robe) she enters an entirely new story, and becomes a different character. Mrs Coulter is as scary as ever: perhaps the most terrifyingly sweet woman in the genre. The parallels between "their" world and "our" world aren't laboured, and as the action moves north to Svalberg the distinctions blur; after all, both universes are covered in snow. Much as Pullman's effortless prose style made us accept daemons are perfectly reasonable in part 1, we accept moving between dimensions as entirely normal in this part 2.
What's more, I hate fantasy. I just hate it: full of lazy supernatural powers and magical get-out-of-jail-free cards. But I'll give any author a chance, and Pullman of course came with somewhat powerful credentials. I'm glad I took the plunge. The Subtle Knife uses the devices of the fantasy genre, but... differently. The mcGuffin (the knife itself) isn't sought reverently for its power; it falls into someone's hands, and it's a huge burden, not a benefit. A true twist that gives the series its narrative strength.
So... a terrific read. But you knew that already. What I'm appealing to in this review is non-fantasy readers. If you think it's beneath you, try His Dark Materials and you might be surprised.
Despite the fantasy setting, Pullman does an amazing job of making the major characters all seem complex and relatable (even Will, aside from the occasional in-your-face reminder that he's The Best Ever).
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