Book Review: The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2)

Book Review: The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2)


The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Subtle Knife picks up almost where The Golden Compass ended, except that this second installment took a slight detour in order to introduce us to a second main protagonist in the form of Will Parry. I quite enjoy Will, and found him a great counterpart for Lyra. Their personalities are very different, but they are both defined most by the protectiveness that fuels them and the fierceness that courses through them. Will is both more civilized and more violent than Lyra, which shines a softer light on our original protagonist than we saw in her first book. The two children on the cusp of their adolescence are quite obviously being set up as either the salvation or damnation of the countless worlds they now know exist.

“It’s like having to make a choice: a blessing or a curse. The one thing you can’t do is choose neither.”

I enjoyed how Pullman made some of these alternate worlds so similar, with just enough differences to be jarring. The further implications of the importance of dæmons, whether they be externally expressed or contained within a person, are fascinating, as is the relation of Dust to dark matter in our own world. Even though I enjoyed these philosophical elements, this book felt far more like a thriller than the adventure story found in The Golden Compass. And yet, I also felt this book was a good deal slower, suffering in places from middle-book syndrome. There’s no was that this book could stand well on its own, at least in my opinion. The events of the previous book are absolutely necessary knowledge in order to understand what’s going on in The Subtle Knife, and the cliffhanger ending would have been infuriating had I not been able to immediately pick up the final installment.

“I found folly everywhere, but there were grains of wisdom in every stream of it.”

Besides the philosophical questions and wonderfully fleshed out child protagonists, my favorite elements of this series are the title objects. The Golden Compass, or aliethiometer, of the first book was a fascinating concept and was so well described that I could almost feel the weight of it in my palms. The namesake of The Subtle Knife is just was intriguing and easy to visualize. I’m already excited to find out the significance of the finale’s title, The Amber Spyglass. As a side note, I was also taken with the adult characters from The Golden Compass who have developed a love for Lyra and determined within themselves to do all they can to stand in for her parents. They’re lovely individuals, and the hard choices they made were so incredibly worthy of respect.

“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.”

I didn’t love The Subtle Knife as much as I did its predecessor, but I still enjoyed it and found myself excited to pick up the final installment. While I definitely don’t share the worldview conveyed in this series, I don’t feel at all like Pullman was trying to preach through his trilogy; he’s just telling a good story that feels both vastly different and sometimes similar to series that shaped my childhood. As much as I love Narnia, it’s definitely a series that pushes its worldview, because that was the intention behind its authorship. I’m interested to see how I feel about The Amber Spyglass, and if I can maintain my objectivity in the face of the events that were spoiled for me so many years ago.

You can purchase a boxed set of the entire series here, with free shipping worldwide!

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