Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife is the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I was giddy in love with the first book, Northern Lights.  I adored the settings and the characters that were so much like those in our own world, but slyly different.

Plucky young Lyra carries on in the second novel, in which she teams up with Will, a teen-aged boy from a different Oxford -- or maybe the same Oxford but in a different time, or different dimension.  They discover, however, that their are links between their two worlds. Will's missing father is in fact the great northern explorer whom Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, was seeking in the first book.

The two youngsters pass between worlds using a mysterious portal that Will discovered.  It's not long, however, before he comes into possession of the Subtle Knife -- an extraordinary tool which can cut nearly anything in any world, and it can open portals between worlds, as well. Not surprisingly, a great many people would like to have this knife, including Mrs. Coulter, Lyra's wicked and power-mad mother.

People in the new world in which Lyra and Will find themselves live in terror of the Shadows -- invisible life forms which prey upon and draw the vitality from adults, leaving them little more than walking shells. Like the mysterious Dust in Northern Lights, the Shadows appear to have no interest in children.  Lyra travels into Will's Oxford and tracks down a scholar to help her understand these ephemeral things.  Dr. Malone is a typically over-tired and under-funded university scientist who seems to find in her young visitor an eager and receptive audience for her theories on Shadows.  Lyra may be young, but she has some very definite opinions about the role of science in the world (whatever world you happen to be living in at the moment.)
"You know what? They're conscious. That's right. Shadows are particles of consciousness. You ever heard anything so stupid? No wonder we can't get our grant renewed." She sipped her coffee. Lyra was drinking in every word like a thirsty flower. "Yes," Dr. Malone went on,"they know we're here. They answer back. And here goes the crazy part: you can't see them unless you expect to. Unless you put your mind in a certain state. You have to be confident and relaxed at the same time. You have to be capable -- Where's that quotation?" She reached into the muddle of papers on her desk and found a scrap on which someone had written with a green pen. She read: "'Capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' You have to get into that state of mind. That's from the poet Keats, by the way. I found it the other day."
"But what I want to know is, why do the people in my world hate it? Dust, I mean, Shadows. Dark matter. They want to destroy it. They think it's evil. But I think what they do is evil. I seen them do it. So what is it, Shadows? Is it good or evil, or what?" Dr. Malone rubbed her face and turned her cheeks red again.
"Everything about this is embarrassing," she said. "D'you know how embarrassing it is to mention good and evil in a scientific laboratory? Have you any idea? One of the reasons I became a scientist was not to have to think about that kind of thing."
"You got to think about it," said Lyra severely. "You can't investigate Shadows, Dust, whatever it is, without thinking about that kind of thing, good and evil and such..."
Although it's a remarkable piece of fantasy fiction, I think The Subtle Knife has a mild case of Sequel Syndrome.  It feels as if Mr. Pullman looked at the marvellous success of Northern Lights and sat back down at his desk with the intention of topping it.  Call me a simple, three-dimensional girl, but I could have done nicely without multiple concurrent universes and characters who pop back and forth between them. This, however, will not stop me looking forward to the third volume in the trilogy.


  1. I stopped reading the moment Hester the daemon-hare died. So dreadfully sad.

    1. You know you are an animal-lover when... the death of the daemon-hare affects you more than the death of her human partner, the brave Texan balloonist, Lee Scoresby. I think it was later in the book that one of the witches' bird-daemons perished with her witch. It makes you appreciate life a bit more when two "beings" perish simultaneously, doesn't it?


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