The Subtle Knife (#2) by Philip Pullman

Published:  16th October 1998Goodreads badge
Scholastic Point
Pages: 341
Format: Paperback
Genre: Fantasy
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

70948Will is twelve years old and he’s just killed a man. Now he’s on his own, on the run, determined to discover the truth about his father disappearance.

Then Will steps through a window in the air into another world, and finds himself with a companion – a strange, savage little girl called Lyra. Like Will, she has a mission which she intends to carry out at all costs.

But the world of Cittàgazze is a strange and unsettling place. Deadly, soul-eating Spectres stalk in its streets, while high above, the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. And in the mysterious Torre degli Angeli lurks Cittàgazze’s most important secret – an object which people from many worlds would kill to posses.

This is the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy and Pullman begins it by changing not only points of view, but also changing worlds. The Subtle Knife begins in what is presumed to be our own world, with Will Parry the new focus. From early on Will grabs your attention and sympathy, he is a young boy trying to look after his mental ill mother, and doing everything he can to keep from drawing attention to himself for fear of being taken away and his mother institutionalised.

Will is a fierce and strong kid, he is tough as he needs to be and insistent, and has years of wisdom and cunning for his young age. Will has his own troubles and like Lyra, Pullman introduces us to him in the middle of a moment and lets us catch up. Unlike Lyra though, we are given a bit more explanation about Will’s life soon after, which builds a lot of character for Will in a short space of time. When Will meets Lyra the pair joins forces and evidently brings out the best in each other, using both their skills and cunning to help one another with what they need to do.

The Subtle Knife moves between three universes, Lyra’s, our own, and a third different again. The different worlds Pullman creates are always curious and remarkable, and this time is no different. With multiple worlds to describe Pullman gives each one depth and detail, and provides description within the narrative, keeping the flow of the story strong while making it vivid and complex at the same time. With three worlds there are a range of stories to follow, but Pullman links them all together seamlessly, and each one progresses the novel on, even when the events are not technically connected.

One thing I always notice upon reading The Subtle Knife is how much it makes me miss the world in Northern Lights. Don’t get me wrong, reading about Will, the knife, the entire adventure of finding new worlds is enjoyable and exciting, but there are moments, especially in the beginning, where I long to be back on the snow-covered landscape of the North. This feeling does pass as you become invested in Will’s story, and watch as Lyra almost takes a backseat to Will’s journey. I think having Lyra out of her element and in a world she doesn’t understand makes her seem smaller and less assured. She initially goes back to being a bit lost and a follower, instead of the brave girl who marched North to rescue her friends. But she gains confidence again and the old Lyra is clearly still there.

Pullman intricately and skillfully combines the characters of Northern Lights with new characters introduced from various worlds. Favourites from Northern Lights journey into new worlds on missions of their own and in doing so show off more about these new worlds, but also add crucial aspects to the story. Even when he appears to be telling one story, Pullman is pulling together pieces for the bigger picture, subtly and quietly in the background.

Once again Pullman is also a master at limiting obvious explanations yet still offering full understanding. Through character thoughts, conversations, and various descriptions Pullman manages to explain a lot about what is happening, whether it is the detail and appearance of a window to another world, strange beings such as angels, or the strange and mysterious Spectres. This is especially important since there are moments of great technicality, especially understanding scientific matters regarding Dust, also known as dark matter. Pullman makes these explanations appear natural and real, making readers understand things alongside characters, while also using casual remarks that have a lot of meaning behind them to answer questions and fill in gaps. Pullman puts a lot of faith in the reader to put the pieces together and understand various aspects of the story, no matter how big or important, without needing to spell it out for them.

There is a different tone in this book than the first, certainly due to the content, but there are still moments of the same excitement, suspense, mysteries and surprises that were in the first book. Pullman lays hints and clues as he goes along which make for thrilling discoveries, and seeing the mixture of characters interact with one another is enchanting. The language is intellectual but simple, and the story is thrilling to read and is marvellously written. This book is both a follow-up to the first novel and a stepping stone into the last; another step towards the grand finale we’ve been told about from the start. With intelligent writing Pullman keeps this momentum going and builds on it gradually, blending it seamlessly with the  main story and managing to fill you with anticipation, captivation, and an eagerness to jump right into book number three, as is the Pullman style.

You can purchase The Subtle Knife via the following

Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Book Depository | Booktopia

Bookworld | QBD

Dymocks | Kobo


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