fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Philip Pullman The Subtle Knife His Dark MaterialsThe Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife is the second in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, beginning with The Golden Compass and ending with The Amber Spyglass. It is an amazing piece of literature; often more suited for adult readers than for the children/young adults that it’s geared toward, and with a message that — though controversial — is immensely thought provoking and worth pondering. Strangely enough, this second book is actually my favourite installment in the series; odd since middle books are often those that flounder.

At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon walked into the Northern Lights, across the bridge Lord Asriel had made and into another world. Readers might be disconcerted therefore to begin the book without Lyra in sight. Instead, Pullman introduces us to Will Parry, a young boy who has spent his whole life trying to look inconspicuous. His father went missing when he was just a baby, and his mother is often mentally unwell — and lately strange men have been coming to the house to harass his beloved mother and investigate his absent father. Putting his mother into the care of a friendly neighbor, Will ends up finding a case of letters that the men were after, and in the scuffle that follows, one of them ends up dead. Now a fugitive and a murderer, Will takes to the streets, and finds refuge in the most astonishing place — in the middle of the footpath Will watches a cat disappear into thin air. Following it, Will climbs through a window into another world.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn the beautiful, silent, Mediterranean city known as Cittagazze Will finds a companion — Lyra, who is still on her mission to find and discover the mystery of Dust. The two compare stories and figure out their next move: Will wants to find his father, and Lyra wants a scholar that can help her untangle what Dust is, the strange substance that causes her altheiometer to answer any question she poses to it. The altheiometer tells Lyra to help Will find his father, but when her device is stolen by a strangely familiar man, the two children are faced with a new ultimatum: to fetch an artifact known as the Subtle Knife, which resides in the Torre degli Angeli in Cittagazze.

With the sound of mustering angel wings in the sky, and savage children roaming the streets, Lyra and Will face danger, intrigue, beauty and suspense in this truly wonderful sequel. Whilst Lord Asriel gathers forces to him for a war not seen since the last battle of Heaven, the terrible Mrs Coulter goes about her own sinister purposes. Lyra enlists the physicist Mary Malone to her cause by teaching her how to communicate with the conscious Dust through her computer, whilst Sir Charles Latrom plans her downfall. The witch Serafina Pekkala and her clan of witches met with Lee Scoresby the aeronaut who vows to find the elusive Stanislaus Grumman, who has valuable information for Asriel and the new bearer of the Subtle Knife.

And throughout all of this is a new, even deadlier threat — throughout the street of Cittagazze roam the Spectres, unseen by children, but deadly to adults who are subject to their very essence being devoured. Pullman effortlessly pulls these new mysteries together, enriching and expanding the worlds that he has created and piling on new facts and information to a deep and elusive pattern that the reader can barely see moving under the characters’ actions. Whilst Lyra and Will go about their own activities, you can tell that insurmountable forces are rising up around them. Little touches of intrigue are everywhere: the artifacts in the museum that Lyra recognizes from her own world, or the blade of the subtle knife that is exactly that of the blade at Bolvangar. All of these details go unexplained, and serve only as tiny bits of fascinating circumstance.

Some may feel a bit put off at the change in protagonist, from Lyra to Will (who dominates this, and most of the third book), but I actually liked Will better. Most readers will prefer the feisty Lyra, but the quiet, focused Will was a character I could grasp and understand easier than Lyra. In any case, both of these characters (and Pan of course) are fundamental to the unraveling of the plot and make a great team together, especially when they combine the powers of the altheiometer and the Subtle Knife.

As I said The Subtle Knife is my favourite installment in the series, and a book you can read several times, finding deeper meaning and added detail every time. As always, the criticism Pullman poses against organized religion (in particular, the Catholic Church) is controversial, but I found it easy enough to enjoy the book without totally agreeing to its message. This gets a bit more difficult in The Amber Spyglass, when the message gets a lot more heavy-handed, but for now The Subtle Knife reads more as a remarkable adventure through several worlds where unseen forces are slowly on the move.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.