Michelle Isenhoff

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, book two), by Philip Pullman, 1997, Book Review

The Subtle Knife continues the story of Lyra, who is destined to change the universe as we know it. She has crossed over to another world and the main focus actually shifts from Lyra to a young boy named Will, who is from Earth.
The story begins with Will, who is desperate to hide his mother from the men who suddenly come harassing her. She hasn’t been well since his father disappeared on an Arctic exploration twelve years before. Now these men are questioning her about him, searching for something. Will fears for her safety and accidentally kills one of the men while protecting her. When he runs, he discovers a window linking Earth to Cittàgazze. Cittàgazze is a bleak place. Three hundred years ago the residents there created an object that could rend the fabric between worlds. They were careless and let in the specters, spirit beings that feast on the soul, the daemon. But in this crossroads world he meets Lyra, and their stories and destinies merge.
I didn’t like this one nearly as much as the first book for several reasons. For one thing, the elements that made The Golden Compass so unique and intriguing—the Arctic setting, the gyptians, the bears—are absent. I didn’t like Cittàgazze at all. And the story just isn’t as engaging. Pullman does weave in some vital action and information, and there are even a few surprises, but the story bounces around so much between new characters and new settings that it feels a little disjointed. Eventually they’ll all tie together, I’m sure. But this one certainly doesn’t read as smoothly as the first one.
One thing that does grow stronger is Pullman’s animosity toward Christianity. All the important “good guys” voice similar convictions against the church. Now it’s true that the church has been corrupt historically and committed some terrible atrocities, but Pullman takes it one step farther. His characters despise God himself and blame Him for instigating and condoning all the activities of the church. “To rebel was right and just, when you consider what the agent (church) of the Authority did in His name.” And they list mutilations, cruelties, burning witches, etc. all “designed to destroy the joys and the truthfulness of life.” God is called the “tyrant” who has worked for ages to keep knowledge, wisdom, strength, decency and freedom from humanity while desiring their obedience, humility and submission.
(Spoiler alert!) We also find out that Dust has a consciousness, an intelligence. It can communicate with humans. It’s associated with the rebel angels who fought against God in heaven in ages past. Then 35,000 years ago, the angels, through Dust, tampered with the evolution of man and made us what we are with one purpose in mind: to gain allies in the war against God. Now Lord Asriel’s plan is coming into line with theirs. He’s gathering an army from many worlds to make war on God and finish what the rebel angels started ages ago. And Will is bringing him the one weapon in all the universes that can kill Him. This time the “right side” must win. “We’ve had nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history.”
I was pretty shocked by the malice in this one. I would have no problem letting my kids read the first book when they reached high school age. I’d want them to be aware the atheistic point of view, to be able to judge for themselves the bias of the author, and to be able to locate twisted doctrine and such. Also, the first story was very engaging. This one just isn’t. The things I liked about book one have vanished, and the things I disliked have magnified greatly.
Parents should also be aware of additional content that gives it a high maturity age (14+), like some graphic death scenes, suicide, mercy killing, a huge amount of spiritual content, sexual affairs (veiled, but apparent), talk of sexual mutilation, etc. It’s been promoted as middle grade fiction, but this one is definitely not for tween readers. But I don’t think I’d really want my kids to read The Subtle Knife at all.
In a nutshell, this one was a disappointment. I am, however, going to finish the series and give it a thorough opinion.

Book one: The Golden Compass
Book three: The Amber Spyglass
The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, book two), by Philip Pullman, 1997, Book Review

6 thoughts on “The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, book two), by Philip Pullman, 1997, Book Review

  1. I will agree with you that this isn’t the subject for middle graders. But, it’s interesting that the issues in the book are the dark issues in our world (globally). I can see why the other books never made it to the screen. Want rush to ead the last two.

    1. Cause and effect are flipped on their head in this book. All these dark issues, rather than being caused by humans, governments, greed, evil spirits, disease, selfishness, grabs for power, or even the church, whatever, God is to blame for them. Human suffering was his intention. God is the problem and man the solution.
      There is great value in appropriately handling such issues in books for kids so they can learn about and discuss them. But we’ll never arrive at truth or solutions by starting from false assumptions. This isn’t the best book to teach from.

    1. Lol, I read this series four or five months ago. It’s just finally posting. The last one does, in fact, get a little better, but the whole premise is one I didn’t care for.

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