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The Subtle Knife
Philip Pullman
Del Rey Books, 384 pages

The Subtle Knife
Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman says that he is not a writer, but rather that he writes stories, and considers this distinction critical. As a child he loved radio serials, Superman, Batman, and especially ghost stories. A graduate of Oxford University with a degree in English, he has written novels, plays, and picture books for readers of all ages. The Golden Compass was his first fantasy novel; The Subtle Knife is his second.

ISFDB Bibliography
Philip Pullman & his writing
The Subtle Knife, Chapter 1
Dark matter Tutorial
Audio for The Golden Compass
MOO based on The Golden Compass

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Lela Olszewski

If you haven't read The Golden Compass, immediately get a copy and read it. If you're hesitating because it is a "young adult novel," remember that Lord of the Rings and Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy are as well. As soon as you're finished, you'll be able to enjoy the second book in Philip Pullman's trilogy, The Subtle Knife, and learn what becomes of Lyra Silvertongue after she leaps from her world into the unknown. Of course, you'll have to anxiously await the final volume like the rest of us. (Actually, you can read The Subtle Knife on its own and still be able to understand the events and characters.)

Will Parry's family is utterly dysfunctional. With a missing father and an emotionally disturbed mother, twelve-year-old Will has learned to be the parent: shopping, cooking, coping with social services, and evading his mother's imaginary enemies. But sometimes paranoia is real. Mysterious men are after them, trying to obtain his father's letters. Will asks his piano teacher to take care of his mother and tries to save the letters, inadvertently killing one of their pursuers.

Pullman's evocation of the struggle of a twelve-year-old caught in an impossible situation captures his bravado and naïveté perfectly. As Will flees from the scene of the murder, he worries about never seeing his mother again and about who will feed his cat. Later, after avoiding his pursuers by entering another world, Cittagazze, he writes his mother a postcard of classic understatement: "Dear Mum, I am safe and well, and will see you again soon. I hope everything is all right. I love you. Will."

Lyra Silvertongue is also in Cittagazze with her magical compass, having fled her own world. Will and Lyra are perfect foils for one another. Both are world-wise, but from different worlds, so their knowledge and abilities complement one another and enable them to survive. Cittagazze has been visited by a plague of Specters who are eliminating the adults, leaving only children to roam the streets. Once again both Will and Lyra are without their parents to guide them. Cittagazze, though a temporary haven, exemplifies Will's greatest fear: all the children have lost their parents, or will soon.

Will and Lyra are not the only ones trying to understand the world-shattering events. The witch, Sarafina Pekkala, must save another witch from torture done to reveal the witches' secrets. Lee Scorsby, aeronaut, goes on a quest to find Stanislaus Grumman, shaman and explorer. And of course, Mrs. Coulter, the "snow queen" of the first novel, still searches for Lyra. Lyra goes in search of an Oxford Scholar and finds Dr. Malone, a physicist trying to answer the same questions as those of Lyra, but with theoretical physics instead of theological magic. The mysterious Sir Charles Latrom forces a promise from Will and Lyra that sends them on a quest for a magical knife. The quests converge as the various adults struggle to either protect or capture Lyra and Will.

Will, more than Lyra, is the focus of the novel. His triumph in the Torre degli Angeli (Tower of Angels) and later when he learns the importance of his ultimate task are both bittersweet moments, as he realizes that power and knowledge have a price. Although the climatic moment of the book doesn't have the raw emotional power of the instant in The Golden Compass when Lyra realizes that she has betrayed her best friend, Will's loss is still powerful and heart-breaking.

In addition to unique worlds, fascinating characters, and emotionally powerful writing, the book has a variety of other exemplary qualities. I enjoyed the touches of humor that help relieve the tension generated by Lyra and Will's almost constant flight from danger. When a fog descends for weeks at a time, Pullman writes that "there are few natural philosophers as frustrated as astronomers in a fog." When one of the few remaining Cittagazze adults explains how the Specters entered their world, Pullman plays on the differing meaning of the word "bonds" to a banker and a physicist.

Pullman's straightforward writing style gives a simple elegance to the book. This style reminds me of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy (although the books are dissimilar in plot and setting). I also enjoyed the names he uses, and again they reminded me of Le Guin. Will's cat is named Moxie: a wonderful name for a cat who saves his life, possibly more than once. 'Will' evokes determination, which he certainly has. One can "parry" a knife thrust, and he will parry the subtle knife. His father, John Parry, is an arctic explorer, perhaps descended from the nineteenth century British arctic explorer Sir William Parry?

Pullman has written a subversive novel. Following the conventions of so many British fantasies, Will discovers a door to another world. But unlike the innocent children who go through the wardrobe to Narnia or those who fall into another world in Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain, Will's life is full of pain. He is also a murderer, however accidentally. Neither is Lyra pure, being an accessory to murder when she brought Roger to her father. The one innocence they both share is sexual innocence, which their allies go to great lengths to protect.

But the subversiveness of the book is more fundamental, for this isn't the retelling of a fairy tale, like The Golden Compass. This is part of the story of the Old Testament battle between good and evil, but the usual sides have been reversed. In this revolt of the fallen angels against God, "the Authority," Lyra and Will fight with the rebel angels, not against them, in a struggle for joy, truth, and freedom. I can't wait to see how it all turns out.

Copyright © 1997 by Lela Olszewski

Lela Olszewski is an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance, as well as an eclectic mix of other fiction and non-fiction. She is also a librarian with an interest in readers' advisory, and believes fully in Rosenburg's Law: Never apologize for your reading tastes. She has no cats.

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