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A strong sequel
on 5 May 2017
The Subtle Knife was one of my favourite books as a teen (although I haven't read it in well over a decade) and it still largely stands the test of time. For a children's novel, it is hugely ambitious. It raises some deep theological concepts, ranging from the nature of innocence to the problems of organised religion to the perception of reality. It should possibly be noted that, despite the accessible way in which this novel is written, a lot of the subtext is likely to go whizzing over the head of younger readers.
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.