Book review: The Subtle Knife

I certainly went through The Subtle Knife much faster than through Northern Lights, which is partly of function of having more spare time on my hands in the absence of the rest of the family, but also a function of the second book being better than the first. The things that are important to me in a large-sized book all improved: The dialogues became conversations and not a vehicle to briefly state an important fact before moving on; the descriptions of places became multi-dimensional; and the action morphed from following a single main character obsessed with a single idea to following several undoubtedly converging plot lines and focusing on multiple characters along the way.

The first book of His Dark Materials trilogy familiarized us with a world parallel to ours, both similar enough to be recognizable and different enough to be alien. It also established that there were infinite parallel worlds in the universe, with a connotation that one of those was the real world the we live in. It set up the idea that some unexplained matter – known as Dust – is at the heart of the epic theological and philosophical struggle. Finally, it introduced key players in the unfolding events: 11-year-old Lyra, whose ability to operate a unique and powerful device clearly sets her apart, but who is also repeatedly referred to as some sort of messiah; her uncle – actually, father – Lord Asriel, whose desire to build a bridge to other worlds is so consuming, he does not stop before killing a child to advance his purposes; Lyra’s mother, Mrs Coulter, a powerful, cruel and ambitious woman, whose goals seemingly align with those of the ruling church, The Magisterium, but also further those of her lover, Asriel; a queen of witches, Serafina Pekkala, who is only clear on that she has to be helping Lyra; the armored bear king Iorek Byrnison, who owes Lyra at least partially his return to the throne; and an aeronaut, Lee Scoresby, who seemingly is a supporting character, but has a clear mark of someone who’ll play a bigger role in the future.

The second book evidently starts no more than a couple of weeks after the conclusion of the first one. It immediately introduces another major character, 12-year-old Will Parry, who is wise and mature beyond his years. Will is from our own world. He has to leave his home after inadvertently killing a burglar who was searching his house for old letters of Will’s long-disappeared father. By pure accident, Will comes across a window to a parallel world, in which he meets Lyra, and the story takes off with the children combining their efforts in finding answers to Lyra’s questions about Dust and Will’s search for his father.

Three worlds figure in this book: The original world of Northern Lights, our own world, and the “intersection” world plagued by the sinister Spectres that feast on people’s consciousness, but only on adult ones, and are harmless and invisible to the children. The narration moves freely between the worlds and between different vantage points, following the main characters and introducing others (although Iorek only figures in Lyra’s recollections).

Asriel continues to stay in the background, as he was for most of the first book, but it is his preparations for challenging God in an ultimate battle that gives everyone in this book a purpose. The concept of Dust is furthered by connecting it with the dark matter in our world, which is hypothetically responsible for the onset of human intelligence thirty-five thousand years ago, and with uncounted angels who lost their previous battle with God and are now flocking to Asriel’s banners. We learn that Lyra is the reincarnation of Eve, and her purpose is not to suffer the fall when the story of Creation is replayed. Will becomes a reluctant bearer of the subtle knife that can cut through any material and open windows between worlds; the knife is later named as the ultimate weapon without which Asriel cannot hope to defeat God (although Will is not made explicitly aware of that).

We also meet Will’s father, who inadvertently travelled between our world and the original world of the trilogy years ago and, having had been unable to find his way back, became both a famous scientific explorer and a powerful shaman in his adopted universe. He is now terminally ill, but in his ardent support for Asriel’s cause he has it as his last purpose in life to instruct the new knife-bearer to seek out Asriel. He fulfills his role without knowing that he is talking to his son – nor does Will know that he is dealing with his father, – and then the two have a brief moment of recognition before the father is killed.

In the meantime, Mrs Coulter continues her pursuit of Lyra, Serafina and other witches meddle, and Scoresby is instrumental in bringing Will’s father to the end of his quest. Chases and fights ensue, the Spectres attack a fair number of bystanders, people start moving between worlds with increased ease, and a particle scientist from our world enters the fray (although her purpose in the proceedings is still unclear).

Remarkable storytelling and grand concepts! And now, a truly fantastic canvas on which the masterpiece is painted.

If only it was painted smoothly. Despite the overall enjoyment that I received from reading the novel, there are plenty of developments that are not substantiated enough to pass without some suspension of disbelief. The most egregious example of that, to me, was Will’s muted reaction to losing his father forever within a second of realizing that he had found him. Will has been set up as a mature and thoughtful boy, and, admittedly, he has been nursing a grievous wound for several days which may have numbed his feelings, but the best way to describe his reaction is dejected. He dreamed of finding his father, of getting to know him, of making his family whole again for his entire life. And he is only 12! Yet, the best he can manage in response to his father’s premature death is mild and unconvincing anger at his killer.

Among many examples of concepts and plot developments that lack in substantiation are the incredible advance of Asriel’s preparations for the climactic battle, only a few weeks after having built his bridge to another world; the sudden presence of many windows between our world and others, apparently exploited for years by the Magisterium; the transparent implication of daemons being personifications of human souls in the shape of John Parry’s acquired daemon; Mrs Coulter’s sudden dominion over Spectres and her ability to give them new powers; and many others.

Despite all of that, the book is a fascinating read. I find myself more engrossed with this epic than before and look forward to reading the conclusion of the trilogy.

1 comment on “Book review: The Subtle Knife”

Comments are closed.