The Subtle Knife is the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and continues the story begun in The Golden Compass. The series is considered young adult fantasy, although it certainly has some themes that would be better appreciated and understood by adult readers. While The Golden Compass was interesting and worth reading, I did not find it to be anything exceptional, although I probably would have been enthralled by it had I read it as a child. I thought The Subtle Knife was a more engaging, better written and plotted story than The Golden Compass and I look forward to reading the concluding volume of the series.
The Subtle Knife continues the story of Lyra and introduces a new character, a child named Will who befriends Lyra. The story actually begins with Will, which I found annoying at first since I wanted to know more about what happened to Lyra, particularly since the previous book had ended on a very promising note. However, I ended up really enjoying Will’s character and the development of his friendship with Lyra.
Will is a child from our world who has had to grow up quickly since his mother has issues with paranoia and obsessive compulsiveness. Afraid that his mother will be taken away from him if anyone finds out what she is really like, Will does not make friends and tries to protect her. When Will finds that some suspicious men have been asking questions at his home, he is forced to flee to another dimension. He finds the town he is in abandoned except for Lyra and Pantalaimon, who have also wandered into this world. At first, Lyra is terrified of Will since he has no daemon, but she soon realizes that he does have a daemon after all even though it is not visible.
Will and Lyra soon find the adults have fled the town they are currently in because of the Specters, an apparition that leaves adults still and lifeless. Children cannot see the Specters and the Specters do not bother children, so there are many children still in this town. Will ends up being chosen as the bearer of a knife the Specters fear. This knife has some unusual powers, but nobody, even the creators of the knife, know how powerful it is except for one man who must find the bearer of this knife to tell him what he must do.
As is often the case with young adult books, this story is very plot-driven, although I felt it did a better job of developing the characters than the first book did. There was no great depth of characterization in this book, but the characters seemed less flat and there were a few key moments that brought out just what type of person they were. Characters tend to very clearly fall into a “good” or “evil” category, with one or two exceptions. I’ll be interested in seeing what Pullman does with some of these characters in the final volume of the trilogy.
This book was shorter than The Golden Compass, but I thought this was a good choice. The plot moved along very well with fewer words and I thought the pacing of the story was well done. There was rarely a dull moment; in fact, the only slow part I can recall was in the beginning when I was trying to figure out what this new guy Will was doing there.
The Christian religion is the backdrop for a lot of the mythology in the story and I think Pullman develops and expands on these religious themes in a very compelling way. Christians, particularly Catholics, may find some of these themes offensive. The Catholic Church is featured in these books in a rather unfavorable light (as is not uncommon with speculative fiction books).
The Subtle Knife is an entertaining, easy to read story containing some insight into religion and the differences between innocence and experience. It is a light book with some not-so-light themes, perfect for when you are in the mood for a book that is short and fun yet not complete fluff.