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.

Review: Northern Lights

SPOILERS AHEAD

I’ve heard so many good things about the His Dark Materials trilogy, and so many people have told me to read the books. The film The Golden Compass was my favourite when it came out, but I still didn’t read the books. For Christmas, I received The Folio Society’s editions, and Northern Lights was the last book I picked up in 2018 and the first I finished in 2019. Safe to say, it certainly lived up to my expectations.

I love Lyra. She’s feisty and intelligent and curious, everything that I want to be, essentially! I also enjoyed the moments when her childish nature shone through the text: ‘But it didn’t seem to Lyra that she would ever grow up.’ It highlights the fact that even though she is on this long journey and is part of a huge task that could change everything about her world, she is still a child at the end of the day. But that fact that she is not letting the weight of her journey crush her is what makes her one of my favourite fictional characters.

It’s not just Lyra’s characterisation that’s brilliant, though. Pullman gives each character their own dialect – the gypsy’s slang, or the educated upper class – which makes them feel more real, and they all have a range of personalities that will have you sympathising with them at least once in the novel, even if you despise them.

Saying that there is one thing that I didn’t like, and it is the tiniest of criticisms. When Lyra reunites with Ioreck just before his fight with Iofur, she calls him ‘dear’ multiple times. This could just be me, but when I was a child, the word ‘dear’ made me shudder and think of an old man addressing his wife. I can’t see Lyra using it for Ioreck, or anyone even if she grew up in a world of scholars. Again, this could just be me though, as I’m not one for pet names, especially ‘dear.’

Pullman’s style of writing draws you into the narrative. The world he has created is beautiful, even though many of the locations, such as Oxford, Lapland, and Svalbard are not fictional. However, he has transformed them into places that seem more magical and alive, in a way it saddens me that our version of these places is not filled with armored bears and witches and sacred devices like the alethiometer.

Speaking of the alethiometer, I think the idea of that alone is incredible. I would never have imagined an object that can answer your questions through symbolism. Pullman has a vivid mind, and it’s this fact alone that makes me want to read more of his works.

One scene that stood out for and still replays in my head, even while reading The Subtle Knife, is the fight between Iorek and Iofur in part three. The language Pullman uses here is beautiful:

‘Like two great masses of rock balanced on adjoining peaks and shaken loose by an earthquake.’

‘And that was when Ioreck moved. Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean, and which makes a little stir in the deep water, but which when it reaches the shallows rears itself high into the sky, terrifying the shore-dwellers, before crashing down on the land with irresistible power.’

As a writer, I struggle with fight scenes. My novel is set in the 1600s, and the weaponry and techniques were very different during this period. I can never create the right imagery, but the way Pullman has in these lines is overwhelmingly clever. The nature imagery and similes convey the power and brutality of the fights while maintaining the grace and dignity of the two bears. This technique also works well with the third person narrative, for, if the story was told in the first person, he may not have been able to use this technique as well, as Lyra would probably not have seen it this way.

I do find that this book is a bit like Harry Potter, in the sense that it’s adaptable for a wide audience. It’s a children’s book, and yet I’m reading it at 22 years old, and loving every minute of it. However, I do sometimes struggle to see how someone Lyra’s age could read this and not get confused at times, such as the conversations surrounding Dust.

It has taken me far too long to read this book; I wish I started it sooner. Pullman has created a beautiful world filled with wonder and magic, and it has left me in awe. I’ve started reading the next in the series, The Subtle Knife, and I’m already enjoying it just as much.

Also, while I was writing this, I took a quiz to see who my daemon would be. I got a golden monkey, because I’m ‘ambitious, worldly and smart’. I’d prefer to have an owl though…

Let me know which animal your daemon would be!