A Review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife


This review contains what the young people call “spoilers.” Read at your own risk.

 The second installment in this trilogy is my favorite, I think. In this book – which is also the shortest of the three – we learn or intuit a great deal more about why Lyra’s world is so weirdly skewed and about how the various plot lines that began in The Golden Compass fit together. The first chapter is about Will Parry, a character who is not part of The Golden Compass. Will is fourteen, and when we meet him, he is trying to persuade his piano teacher to let his senile mother live with her so he can protect a green briefcase and fight off the thugs who keep breaking into his house to try to steal it. In the opening chapter, he kills one of these intruders, meaning that the police will soon be looking for him.

It took remarkably long for me to get oriented in Will’s world. I think I read most scenes in the first two chapters two or three times. At some point, I stopped, stunned: This is the REAL world, I realized. No one has daemons. Lights are electric, not anbaric. People use cars and phones and the standard forms of technology in use in 1997, when this novel was published. At this point, I was riveted – I knew from the back of the book that Will’s story would join Lyra’s at some point, and I was extremely curious about how this would happen. I’ll fill you in – but first I need to give you a little more backstory about what happens at the end of The Golden Compass.

If you recall from my recent review of The Golden Compass, Lyra travels to the far north in the company of various “gyptians,” hot-air balloon operators, witches, and talking bears in order to rescue her friend Roger from the Gobblers. As Lyra learns, the Gobblers are not the band of outlaws she originally thought they were: they are actually an organized body that is affiliated with the mainstream church, which in Lyra’s world is all-powerful and is based on the teachings of John Calvin. The “GOB” in their name stands for “General Oblation Board,” and Lyra’s biological mother, Mrs. Coulter, is a high-ranking official within this organization. One of her many projects is an experiment about severing children from their daemons. Daemons are physical manifestation of people’s souls in animal form, so separating them from their bodies is no small or inconsequential process. The process involves putting the child and the daemon in separate cages and using a special tool that can really cut anything (more on this in a bit) to sever the ethereal bond between them. Children who have been “severed” are deeply traumatized and disoriented. When Lyra meets a severed child, she is deeply upset; the human/daemon bond in her universe is so sacred and deep that the idea of severing the two violates her world’s greatest taboo. Lord Asriel’s reason for wanting to sever one child from its daemon is not cruel in nature; he wants to access the enormous burst of power that takes place when this severing happens. The science doesn’t hold up, of course, but I picture it as sort of like the splitting of the atom (as far as I’m concerned, the science of that doesn’t hold up either, though I suspect I am mistaken).

Anyway, Lord Asriel succeeds – he severs Roger from his demon, killing him in the process – and in the process he opens a portal into another world. Lyra walks into that other world, and it is in a city called Cittàgazze in that other world that Will meets her. Cittàgazze is a weird, creepy, powerfully-imagined place inhabited only by children, and over time we learn that this world is tormented by creatures called Specters, who seem very similar to Dementors. Specters only attack adults (they feed off Dust, which is the physical manifestation of original sin), and they essentially suck out their souls, leaving the adults unable to care for anything. For that reason, children in Cittàgazze basically wander around in packs, looking for food and being kind of shell-shocked. Will, who reached Cittàgazze when he was following a cat and then saw the cat disappear into a weird “hole” in the air – a hole that seemed to him like a convenient way to escape from the thugs who were chasing him – eventually kills a man in a tower who is defending a special weapon, the “subtle knife” of the title. Because the subtle knife can only be wielded by the person who has won in in a fair fight (The wand chooses the wizard, Harry…) Will is now the rightful owner of this weapon. Two of his fingers are cut off in the fight, in precisely the way that fingers are always cut off in a battle for the subtle knife (this appears to be the price for ownership), and Will spends much of the novel bleeding profusely before being healed by a talking bear. The subtle knife can truly cut anything – meaning that it can sever bodies from daemons (and yes, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter want it for this reason, a lot) and also cut little windows between worlds like the one that the cat led Will through. And oh yeah: there is one more thing the subtle knife can do. It can kill God.

Killing God – known in these novels as “the Authority” – is ultimately Lord Asriel’s goal. Because Lyra’s world is based on the theology of the Protestant Reformation, its God is a dictator who uses his power to repress anyone he feels threatened by. Pullman doesn’t go into a ton of detail about exactly who and what the Authority represses, but certainly the fact that women are subservient to men in this series (most women; Mrs. Coulter has found her way to significant power and influence, as a small handful of women always did in all eras of male-dominated history) is part of the injustice Lord Asriel is fighting. They also seem to be fighting God for purely philosophical reasons – they are throwing off a tyrant because throwing off a tyrant is a good thing in itself. Much of The Amber Spyglass – the next volume in the series – is a huge angel war that is sort of a follow-up to Lucifer’s rebellion against God in the far-distant past (there’s the Paradise Lost connection again).

It also becomes clear in this installment that part of the organizing principle of this fantasy series is quantum mechanics. Quantum theory says that every time a person makes a choice, they leave behind the chance to make a different choice, so the possibilities inherent in their own world become narrower, but an alternate universe is formed, and the alternative choice becomes the basis of that universe. With all the decision-making humans out and about in the world, this theory becomes an especially baffling way to contemplate infinity. It also explains some of the many differences between Lyra’s world and Will’s (which is also ours). John Calvin became pope in Lyra’s world, cementing Protestantism as the dogma of the entire Christian world and causing history to veer away from the real-world timeline we are familiar with. Along the way, while our own ancestors figured out how to harness electricity, Lyra’s developed “anbaric” power – an alternate way to provide man-made light and power. Quantum theory doesn’t explain talking bears, but overall it is satisfying as a unifying principle, and once I figured out what Pullman was going for here, I began to enjoy the series even more.

So much is compelling in this novel on an emotional level. Lyra’s puzzlement at how Will can survive without a daemon (she eventually figures out that his daemon lives inside him). Will’s reunion with his biological father, who has been a known quantity in this series since the very first chapter of The Golden Compass, though he is well hidden. The deep pathos of the children of Cittàgazze. Various witches enacting revenge plots against old lovers in the midst of everything. A new character named Mary Malone who has also devoted her life’s work to studying “Dust,” though from a perspective quite different from Lord Asriel’s. Will’s terrifically sad relationship with his mother. The never-ending host of fantasy creatures. I remain baffled as I wonder what children make of this series (I mean, if you were ten, what would you make of this sentence: “Ruta Skadi lived so beautifully in her nerves that she set off a responding thrill in the nerves of anyone close by”?  I don’t even know what to make of it myself (is it about spontaneous orgasms?), though I think I have known women like this), and I was 100% hooked throughout this novel. I am not quiet finished with The Amber Spyglass, though it too is intriguing, and I will return to tell you about it soon.

This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction - Children's, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Philip Pullman, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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