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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
Book Name: The Subtle Knife
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher(s): Yearling (US) Scholastic (UK)
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Release Date: May 22, 2001 (US) March 3, 2011 (UK)

This review contains some spoilers. Read with caution if you have yet to finish the book.

After thoroughly enjoying The Northern Lights I was eager to get onto The Subtle Knife and I was instantly intrigued by Pullman’s approach at opening with an entirely new set of characters. As well as new characters Pullman throws the reader into a new drama and in classic Pullman style he doesn’t shy away from adult themes.

The novel opens with Will having to place his mother in the possession of an old acquaintance, the role reversal is blatantly apparent. Will is acting as the parent and guardian of his mother who is clearly suffering with a mental illness. The theme of a child being forced to act the role of an adult is a common trope when it comes to Will, unlike Lyra whose value was entwined with her position as a child in The Northern Lights. Lyra’s journey, though horrific, did at least portray she had enjoyed her childhood and had been allowed to fully embrace being a child. Will was never allowed this and neither is his story.

Within the first chapter Will is involved in an incident which results in a man being killed. When I think of a word to describe Will the first that comes to mind is ‘human’ not just in the simple sense of Will is from our world and does not have a deamon, but in his whole nature. He has never had any of the luxuries or freedom Lyra has, he has had a difficult and deprived life which has made him incredibly resilient and developed a serious, no nonsense attitude. He is the polar opposite of Lyra which is exactly what is needed.

The legacy of Will, Lyra and their love story was one of the first things I heard about this series and if Pullman takes his Adam and Eve theme to its conclusion, then the importance of their relationship cannot be underestimated. As afore mentioned the two are complete opposites which works instantly as they balance each other out. In The Northen Lights Lyra was very much brimming with bravado, stubbornness and confidence (real or not) all of which can come across as spoilt, childish and arrogant. Will makes her see this and amend her ways and develop as a character. In return Lyra brings the heart to Will’s hard, unflinching exterior.

All of his life Will has had to care for himself and those around him and whilst he does have to look after Lyra she also cares for and wants to help him. She becomes devoted to him early on, the way she did with Iorek and Lee Scoresby, but this is not meant in a derogatory way. Lyra doesn’t give her love out freely but to those she does care for she gives it whole heartedly, which is exactly what Will needs. The development of their relationship is so subtle and natural you barely see it happening.

Personally I found the moments with Lyra’s daemon the most moving. The reader knows not only that a daemon is the person’s soul but also the rules that surround daemons, notably that no one else can speak to your daemon nor can they touch them. Therefore the scene where Pan licks Will’s hand and rests his head against him when Will is suffering, is simple but brimming with underlying mean. Another prominent scene is when Lyra is pretending to sleep and, not knowing it’s forbidden, Will confides in Pan, it is the very epitome of having a heart to heart. Will is revealing his fears and worries to Lyra’s very soul who in return can reply with Lyra’s true feelings, which shocks Lyra herself. It is simply summed up at the end of book when so much has happened and is happening around Will and he is told so many profound things, but none of these matter because Lyra is gone.

The narrative of The Northern Lights was unwaveringly from Lyra’s perspective, never diverging which will allowed you to develop the strong relationship with Lyra. The Subtle Knife is prominently different, firstly we only rarely follow Lyra and also there are multiple POVs this time round, mainly Lee Scoresby and Seraphina Peckala. It is clear why Pullman needs to do this, the story is expanding and Will and Lyra cannot experience it all. We are in multiple realms at this stage. Different characters are placed in order to show them all and as stated before, the majority of these are characters we already have a relationship with. However, no matter how interesting these chapters were I always found myself wanting to be back with Lyra and Will, I wanted the access to Will that we had with Lyra.

The overall narrative of the trilogy is revealed in this book and it is epic and extreme, certainly not what you’d expect from a series written for children. If I’m honest it does seem somewhat ridiculous but it has only been touched on in this book. I’m intrigued to see how Pullman will pull it off (no pun intended) and how he’ll manage to convince me.

There is also the question of Lord Asriel. I just cannot place my feelings for him. Given his actions in The Northern Lights I clearly had him on the side of the villains but the narrative seems to be implying he is fighting for the side of good. However, I would argue he’s doing it more for his own ambition and the not the greater, but I shall reserve my judgement until the trilogy is complete.

I feel I should conclude this review with my overarching feeling for the entire book – this is not a kids book! There is open and graphic torture in this book! Furthermore Pullman joins the league of writers who don’t shy away from killing off beloved characters. These books are complex, nothing is black and white. It makes you question everything and it is not forthcoming with easy answers, or who to side with. Pullman sets a challenge and it’s one I am still willing to take.


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