Monday, June 02, 2008

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials Book 2) - a review

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series)

Spoilers be found ahead.

The Subtle Knife continues the journey of Lyra Belaqua, begun in The Golden Compass. Lyra is a little girl from a world where the place names are the same as our own, but the physics of magic make everything different, from the shape of your soul to the nature of the church.

Everybody in Lyra's world has a Daemon, a sort of animal familiar that is their soul-self. The Daemon's of children can change shape, but those of adults have frozen into a form that supposedly embodies the most basic nature of their person. Servants, for example, almost always have dog Daemons.

At the end of the first book, Lyra has followed her father to the Arctic. She thought she was rescuing him from the people who were keeping him prisoner, but in fact she brought him the one thing he needed to complete his escape on his own, which turned out to be too precious for her to give up.

So it was taken from her.

Her father built a gate into other worlds from the Aurora Borealis and the life-energy of her best friend. Lyra, mourning and vowing revenge, followed him into it.

The world she ends up in is empty, a beautiful Mediterranean paradise with cities inhabited only by children. The adults have fled a plague of specters that eat the souls of everyone past puberty.

Cittagazze, the world Lyra arrives in, is a bridge. The specters who haunt it are the result of an invention called the subtle knife, a knife so sharp and fine it can cut doors from one world to the next. The specters have been released from one of these doors, causing society to crumble as specters eat away at the adult population. The population of Cittagazze has ended up using the knife to steal from other worlds. It is the only way they can survive in the face of the constant erosion of the able bodied adult population.

Lyra teams up with Will, a boy who comes through another of the doors. He is also looking for his father. He comes from a world totally unlike hers, from a world just like our magic-less twentieth century in fact. They travel through Cittagazee and 20th century Britain together, hoping to find answers about where their fathers are and what the doors made by the subtle knife are.

They pick up other characters like burrs: a helpful physicist, allies from Lyra's home world who have followed the charismatic girl. In the background are stirrings of great things (TM). Both Lyra and Will seem to be the center of powerful prophecies, and there are hints of war. Angels tell other characters that Lyra's father is building an army to challenge God himself, to end the misery of the universe. People come running from all different worlds to help or hinder Lyra and Will. At the end, Lyra and Will are only turned towards that war. They have won no battles, and are running from many enemies.

This novel is more slender than the novels on either side of it in the His Dark Materials trilogy. It takes the loose threads of the first novel, such as Lyra's search for her father, and ideas about the relationship between childhood and innocence, and frays up a few more to keep the flow interesting. By the end of the novel you have journeyed far but answered few questions. The Subtle Knife feels like Count Zero or The Empire Strikes Back in that regard. Like Cittagazze is a bridge world, The Subtle Knife is a bridge novel. It expands issues that were laid out in the first novel, in order to let them be wrapped up in the last novel.

In The Subtle Knife, the innocence of children is a concrete fact, blinding them to the ever present specters and, in effect, to their own morality. This contrasts with the vulnerability of the adults, constantly running from the (literal) specter of their mortality, and leaving the world around them to suffer the consequences for it.

In The Golden Compass, the fact that childrens' Daemons change shape while adults' are static is a similar sort of thematic linchpin. In The Golden Compass, the adults of the Church long for the moral ignorance of their youth and try to achieve this by castrating their souls, by cutting off their Daemons. In The Subtle Knife, it is discovered that moral ignorance isn't enough to sustain a society. The entire world becomes a mishmash of the Lord of the Flies and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with children running rampant but directionless through a world stocked for them by adults too absent to build any kind of framework.

The Golden Compass dealt with faithlessness, which is the most obvious hurdle to clear in life. Subtle Knife deals with faithfulness. Once you understand how faithless and slippery all your beliefs can be, it's hard to get a grip on the world and find something to have faith in. Making that journey is what this middle ground is all about. Taking a stand seems to be what defines the nebulous area between adult life and childhood.
The Subtle Knife is as curious a novel as The Golden Compass, urging readers towards "Giving up Childish Things." This is an unusual stand to take in a fantasy novel, where the framework of the story is made up of childish things. The Subtle Knife is no different: it has monsters, Zeppelin battles, magic, doorways to other universes, angels, and gunfights. It is full of childish things.

Although the author is drawing definitional lines between the blissful ignorance of childhood and the sometimes hard responsibilities of adulthood, I don't think there is friction between the series' fantasy elements and its more thoughtful thematic elements. At the heart of the adventure are the characters, the people who forge through these wonders towards their goals.

Although the nature of Lyra and Will's goals are nebulous, their conviction and determination are not. Their hearts are concerned not with dragons and gold, like much of fantasy, or even of simpler topics like good versus evil, but with loyalty and freedom, loving and being loved, creativity and obedience to a god that sometimes runs the world a little shabbily. Oh, and always with taking the next step towards the answer to their eloquently childlike questions.


This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.

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