Book Review: The Subtle Knife

‘Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit…’

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As outstanding as Northern Lights is, it is a pretty straightforward fantasy novel in terms of themes, plotting and characterisation. Despite author Philip Pullman’s contempt for C.S. Lewis and his Narnia Chronicles, it is still a clear influence on the His Dark Materials trilogy of which both Northern Lights  and The Subtle Knife are a part. The latter novel takes the familiar motifs and subject matter of Northern Lights and busts them wide open. The Subtle Knife is not only a whole new world, but three vastly different universes, with the promise of more waiting beyond the witch-filled horizon and spectre-haunted valleys. Pullman takes such lofty ideas as God, religion, politics, love, the environment and growing up and somehow combines these disparate elements into a novel that demands to be read.

Lyra Silvertongue has been separated from her allies and finds herself in a strange world ruled by children as adults cower in the hills away from soul destroying spectres. In this eerie landscape, Lyra meets Will, a determined and strong boy who hails from a version of Oxford not dissimilar to our own. The worlds of Lyra, Will and the spectres must collide in spectacular fashion if Will is going to find his father and for Lyra to fulfill her destiny.

At times, The Subtle Knife suffers from bridging syndrome in which the second part of a trilogy feels more like a stepping stone between the beginning and the conclusion, rather than an accomplishment in its own right. Everything from the Matrix to Star Wars has fallen foul of this trap, but the thing that saves The Subtle Knife from being overshadowed by the books that flank it is the astonishing conclusion. Without giving too much away, the revelation that closes The Subtle Knife is as shocking as it is unexpected, and the nods toward the potential for an all out holy war in The Amber Spyglass are tantalising. This slow reveal of how much is really at stake is a masterful handling of the long game by Pullman as the significance of Lyra and Will becomes clear over the course of both Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife. Indeed, the entire handling of the introduction of Will as a character is perfect. We are eventually asked to care about Will just as much as Lyra and Pullman manages to pull this off over the course of just one book by making Will such a fully realised and charismatic presence.

Phillip Pullman asks us to take a number of giant leaps in The Subtle Knife. Firstly, with the revelation that Lyra enters a universe that is more or less the same as ours. Secondly, the introduction of what are essentially ghosts and thirdly, the concept of Lyra as a co-star in her own story. While there were moments within The Subtle Knife in which it seemed the plot would collapse beneath its own ambition, the destination emphatically makes the journey worthwhile.

The Subtle Knife takes everything that made Northern Lights so spellbinding and subverts it into something unrecognisable but still weirdly familiar. Put simply, one of the best books I have read in the last year.

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