The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman book cover
The Subtle Knife (1997) is the second novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Here one is introduced to Will, a young boy who, in the absence of his father, is left to look after his troubled mother alone, in a world very much like our own. When Will accidently kills an intruder to his home he goes on the run and, slipping through a window in mid-air, arrives in the barren world of Cittágazze, a world infested with Spectres (ghostly apparitions that eat adult’s souls), where gangs of feral youths roam the deserted cities surviving however they can. Here Will meets Lyra, who arrived in Cittágazze via the window that her uncle, Lord Asriel, created at the end of Northern Lights. The two build a respectful friendship and, when the alethiometer advises Lyra to tie her fate to Will’s, she forsakes her own quest in order to help Will find his absent father. Along the way they come into possession of the Subtle Knife, an implement so finely made that it can cut through any substance, including air itself, allowing the knife-bearer to create windows between different worlds. Besides the central characters' story there are peripheral plot lines, with Serefina Pekkela and Lee Scoresby both embarking upon their own, individual adventures and  Mary Malone, a scientist from Will’s world who is investigating dust, discovers, following a meeting with Lyra, that she is intrinsically linked to the fate of our heroine.

Here Pullman expands upon the biblical themes that ran through Northern Lights, positioning Will and Lyra as a new Adam and Eve, and beginning to invert the moral of the story of temptation in Eden and realisation of divine truth; here making the departure from God a liberating and wholly desirable event. Cittágazze, once grand, ornate and beautiful, now riddled with spectres and despair, becomes a metaphor for the fallen Eden with those who have passed into knowledge (adults) unwelcome and unable to safely enter. In addition, the story is tied up with the battle for heaven between God and the rebel angels, as told in the book of Revelation, and drawing on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Here Lord Asriel becomes a new Satan, leading the rebel angels against the power of God, with humanity enjoying a second chance at true free-will, Lyra and Will symbolic of the world struggling to mature and accept the full burden of enlightenment. 

Pullman deftly works contemporary physics into his writing, presenting ideas far above the conceptual understanding of most young readers. The most central of these, the concept of parallel universes is, in many ways, an expression of free will; infinite possibilities played out simultaneously, no one constraint placed across them all; a concept completely at odds with the single-doctrine state the Authority desires. Even at a molecular level, dust - living, breathing particles of matter - is rebelling against adamantine physical laws, against the authority’s will, against its creator.

Whereas in the first novel Lyra was the centre point of the action, here the narrative moves between characters, with Will becoming the protagonist and long passages devoted to lesser characters (Serefina Pekkela, Lee Scoresby). The story loses momentum when its focus moves to the peripheral characters, their individual quests feeling a little superfluous, and without clear motive beyond a vague notion that they want to ‘help Lyra’. Despite this, much remains concealed, particularly Lord Asriel’s path, which is never described. There are strange devices too; suddenly here we have the alethiometer no longer passively responding to Lyra’s questions, but offering advice and steering her on a particular path. Some of these shifts from the principles of Northern Lights work better than others, and readers who enjoyed the original work may be a little disconcerted by the changes.

Although Will’s search for his father can be, at times, moving, there is a hint of cliché about its conclusion, and in some ways this undermines the quest. However, both Will and Lyra’s respective searches for their fathers work as metaphors for the spiritual search for the father, God. Lyra and Will grow together, maturing and developing a mutual understanding of each other. This is the very heart of the book, and is well portrayed. By the close of the novel one is aware of the strange tension that surrounds the young heroes’ relationship, and it is no leap of faith to realise that the fate of the world is tied very neatly to their burgeoning maturity.

I really like the way Pullman's philosophical ideas begin to come together in this novel, developing on themes that were in their infancy in Northern Lights, however, the plot isn't a strong for me, and for young readers, who will be reading predominantly for the story, I don't feel the book is as strong.

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