Review: The Subtle Knife

SPOILERS AHEAD

The second installment of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials struck me as almost entirely different from the first. It was darker and more gruesome, set in a different world (England as we know it, not the alternate version in Northern Lights). An array of new characters are introduced in this novel alongside the characters I already know and love, and a whole new meaning of Dust is revealed.

We are immediately introduced to Will, who doesn’t comply with novel stereotypes – he’s not the wise kid or the one who tries to act tough. He is set on protecting his mother at all costs, his thoughts continually wondering back to her throughout the novel. His familial circumstances have affected his upbringing, as he comes across as older than his years. This is further shown through his friendship with Lyra, who is now in a completely different world to her own. He looks after her in ways that reminded me of a parent and child, such as stopping her from being hit by a car and teaching her how to cook an omelette and baked beans. I loved their relationship, seeing them look out for one another while they fight to stay alive. They both grow up as the novel progresses, them making each other coffee in the mornings just seemed so cute.

The overall plot of the book was kind of like two novels in one. Any scenes that related to Mrs. Coulter, Scoresby or the witches seemed like the sequel that I was expecting, but when the plot followed Will’s story, it just seemed so different to what I was reading a few chapters ago. I loved the story and enjoyed following Will and Lyra on their story, but when the two merged or switched to one another it just didn’t seem to fit for me; it was disorientating in a way. I didn’t think it was a smooth transition.

It also took a while for the subtle knife to turn up, but when it did, I loved the concept. A blade that can cut through everything, including air, was different from anything I’ve read, and it was nice to see Will with his own device, like Lyra’s alethiometer.

Like the first book, Pullman’s writing was breathtaking. I’ve been struggling with my writing recently, so this novel has been just what I needed. From little descriptions of fire, ‘the embers of a fire glowed’ to the horror of Lee Scoresby’s death. The final words of his life were heartbreaking:

“Lee saw the fireball and head through the roar in his ears Hester saying, “That’s the last of ’em, Lee.”

He said, or thought, “Those poor men didn’t have to come to this, nor did we.”

She said, “We held ’em off. We held out. We’re a-helping Lyra.”

Then she was pressing her little proud broken self against his face, as close as she could get, and then they died.”

The last sentence of that passage brought tears to my eyes. The phrase ‘her little proud self’ broke me, as the wording presented Hester as a superhero in a children’s book, which is what she and Scoresby have been throughout the series so far. They come across as soldiers who died fighting, and the fact that that’s how they’ll be remembered is somewhat comforting but horrible at the same time.

I also love the idea of Spectres. They reminded me of Dementors from Harry Potter, which is probably partly why I liked them. I pictured them as ghostly figures floating hazily around adults, and when they suck the souls of various characters throughout the book, I had goosebumps.

Overall, I didn’t prefer this book to the first one, but I did still really enjoy it. My reading suffered this month, so that could partly be why there were times when I felt like I was reading a completely different trilogy. I also really missed the ice bears! I’d say this book succumbed to the middle book syndrome, although Pullman’s language and characterisation certainly made up for it.

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