SPOILER WARNING: Potential spoilers for the first book follow, as well has a few key insights to this one.
There is an odd sort of subtlety to The Subtle Knife, the sequel to The Golden Compass. Nothing in the novel is really subtle, but of the three books, I remembered almost nothing of this one. I’m not sure how that is, since everything that happens in this novel plays a crucial role to seeing the story through in The Amber Spyglass, and there are so many major events worth remembering, but of the three books, this one felt like I was going in completely fresh.
All the better for me.
The Subtle Knife opens up by departing from Lyra Silvertongue and fixing its focus on Will Parry, a 13 year old boy who is taking care of his mother and trying to hide from a group of shady individuals. When he goes back to his house to find some documents about his long lost father, he winds up accidentally killing an intruder and going on the run.
He flees to Oxford where he stumbles upon a window into another world.
The Subtle Knife is a much bigger tale than its prequel. Not only are there multiple worlds to explore, there are now many more characters with large parts to play in the unfolding, multiverseal chaos. Lyra’s quest was already daunting, and now it seems completely impossible as major factions head towards war and seek mighty instruments to aid in their causes. There’s so much more tension in this book and the stakes are so much higher.
While the stakes grow in The Subtle Knife, the pacing shrinks. The Golden Compass flew by, but The Subtle Knife takes its time and slows down. More time is spent on the intricacy of this multiverse and character interactions, and so while many characters in the first book felt like wooden players in a strict quest, they now feel much more like real characters in a real story.
Will and Lyra meet up early on and make a fairly good pairing. They are both outcasts in their respective worlds, but they look at things differently; they wind up playing off each other well. Will tends to stay in the shadows to not be noticed whereas Lyra likes to be up front and simply lie her way through her problems. They aren’t quite foils of each other, but there’s enough opposition to make their interactions fun.
My only issue is that after a handful of mistakes, Lyra loses much of her steadfastness and follows Will more than leads. She seems to lose some of her stubbornness, and I found that to be a problem, for she was rarely subdued in The Golden Compass.
Subtlety though, that’s the rub of this novel. If antitheocracy was The Golden Compass’s elephant in the room, then it’s simply the room in The Subtle Knife. Within three chapters readers learn that Lord Asriel’s main goal is to kill God and that all the witch clans—inspired by paganism and stereotypical witches—are going to band together to try and destroy the Catholic Church.
The religious antagonism differs in The Subtle Knife when compared to The Golden Compass though, and it isn’t simply in magnitude. The Golden Compass had a deliberate message to portray: the need to question authority (religion), but in The Subtle Knife, the message has transformed into the crux of Pullman’s Dark Materials. The intellectual point has become the underlying plot to the entire trilogy.
Much like the first book, The Subtle Knife is dark in its nature and tone. Bad things happen, characters get hurt, and characters die. There seem to be more bouts of real sorrow than real joy, but it all fits and I like that this “children’s book” isn’t afraid to be bleak or to pose real threats to its characters or worlds.
None of this sorrow is forced; the book is merely sad because what is going on in is sad. A war is brewing, and the stakes are high. Lyra and Will are children, yet they are at the crux of everything and there are more factions working against them than for them—and some of those working for them want to use them rather than save or protect them.
And much like the first book, The Subtle Knife is very plot driven. There are more characters and more interactions, but they are all methodically placed and delivered, and nothing happens without a preplanned reason. There are a few instances that even feel obligatory, for such a novel as this needs to meet certain archetypal tropes such as thefts and arguments. And yet, it isn’t predictable. I’ve read the book before and was still surprised by the ending, which is a monster cliffhanger.
It’s well crafted from start to finish.
Let us return to subtlety, for there is a subtlety to this book that might turn others off. The Subtle Knife is a great novel, but it’s also a transitional novel. Much happens here, but this book acts like a short lull between His Dark Material’s first and final installments. This book builds on the lore of Pullman’s multiverse, and it introduces two new worlds alongside a great war, but it leaves The Amber Spyglass to make real use of this information.
I don’t want that to sound like a criticism though, for the book is well written and well paced, and all of the information presented is interesting. We also get some full answers to questions posed in The Golden Compass, such as the real nature of Dust. Yet, this book is much slower and less remarkable than its predecessor.
The Subtle Knife manages to expand upon everything introduced in The Golden Compass while also being more reserved and contained. It’s a great book, but it’s also the calm before the storm.