THE SUBTLE KNIFE
by Philip Pullman
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Philip Pullman ended The Golden Compass with his heroine, Lyra Silvertongue, entering a new world through a gate created by her father, Lord Asriel. In The Subtle Knife, Pullman expands on the idea of multiple worlds, revealing that Lyra’s world was only one of myriad worlds existing simultaneously with certain amounts of similarities.
In the course of her journey, Lyra meets with Will Parry, a boy only slightly older than she is who is searching for the father he never knew. Will’s father disappeared on an expedition to the arctic to discover an anomaly which would allow him to travel between worlds.
The Subtle Knife, even more than The Golden Compass, is a dark story due to the fact that, for all their abilities, Will and Lyra and the other children are seen as tools to be used by adults, whether the adults are nominally good or evil. Even Lyra’s own parents see her as a tool, not as a person. Will’s mother, on the other hand, has retreated into a world of paranoia, leaving Will to take care of her while it is not clear if his father, when he eventually shows up, will mentor Will or just use him as a pawn. In fact, children, themselves are cruel to one another. One scene set in Cittàgazza, a sort of Grand Central Station between worlds, is reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
While the Church of Lyra’s world is emphatically not the Catholic Church of our world, it is strongly based upon it. Pullman includes a strong streak of catholophobia in many of his characters which makes The Subtle Knife an almost anti-religious work, especially in light of the lack of any strong pro-religious sentiments. The good Lord Asrial, Lyra’s father, is intent on killing his Church’s Authority, God. In our own world, the one adult who seeks to help Lyra is Dr. Malone, who decided to quit being a nun and turn to science because religion failed her.
The anti-religious streak in The Subtle Knife is interesting because there are a number of coincidences in the book which would seem to imply some sort of guiding force between the worlds. Lyra’s alethiometer, a ouija-like device, early on explains that her fate is linked to Will’s, despite what seems like a completely chance encounter on a world which is not native to either. Character’s from both of their home worlds play distinct, and sometimes surprising roles in events which the reader discovers are linked, no matter how unlikely.
Pullman pulls from a variety of myths to create his characters and their worlds. Will Parry, for instance, holds aspects of the Arthurian Fisher King, although the grail he is linked to is the subtle knife of the title and his wound is the loss of fingers whose bloodloss cannot be staunched.
The Golden Compass ended with a resolution of sorts, although it was clear that the story was not yet over. The Subtle Knife, unfortunately, lacks the semi-conclusion found in the first novel, leaving too many threads open to be read as a stand-alone novel, and suffers from a case of middle-book syndrome as Pullman sets up his world for the denouement in The Amber Spyglass. What is clear is that Pullman’s children’s novel is no pablum, but a novel which intrudes an unwholesome world upon both its characters and readers.
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