Lyra finds herself in a shimmering, haunted underworld—Cittàgazze, where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. But she is not without allies: 12-year-old Will Parry, fleeing for his life after taking another’s, has also stumbled into this strange new realm.
On a perilous journey from world to world, Lyra and Will discover an object of devastating power. And with every step, they move closer to an even greater threat—and the shattering truth of their own destiny.
The Subtle Knife is the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. It takes the story in a ultimately darker and more frightening direction than the first book did, yet I still think that a “young adult” label is appropriate for it. While many young adult books, especially of the fantasy genre, are reassuring and safe, Pullman is not afraid to make his younger readers think.
Spoilers from the first and second book are plentiful ahead and I would suggest giving them a read before reading further in this review.
The Subtle Knife introduces a second protagonist, Will Parry, a boy from England in our earth (The Golden Compass took place in an alternate Earth). Will and his mother, who is not mentally well, are being chased by government types over Will’s father’s disappearance. Will doesn’t know much about his father as he disappeared during a mysterious arctic expedition when Will was still a baby. As he is attempting to escape from the people chasing him, one of whom he accidentally killed by pushing down a flight of stairs, will stumbles upon an opening to another world parallel earth called Cittàgazze. He enters into a seemingly deserted city by the sea where he eventually meets Lyra, who entered this same world at the end of The Golden Compass.
Lyra still doesn’t know exactly why she entered this world, but knows it has something to do with Dust and Lord Asriel (her father). She eventually consults the alethiometer which tells her she must help Will find his father at all costs. Will and Lyra hunt for clues together and travel back-and-forth between Cittàgazze and Will’s world. During their travels, Lyra meets a scientist who is studying dark matter. This dark matter is actually what Lyra and people from her world call Dust.
The alethiometer is stolen from Lyra by a man in Will’s world at one point, and in order to get it back, this man instructs Lyra and Will to get an important object from Cittàgazze for him. This object is the subtle knife, a knife capable of cutting windows between worlds…
Pullman continues to keep the pace of the series locked to fourth-gear with hardly a dull moment to be found. We mostly follow Lyra and Will in this book, but there are a few chapters dedicated to Lee Scoresby and Serrafina Pekkala as well.
Will, more than Lyra, seems to be the focus of this novel. His obtaining of the subtle knife and his realization of his ultimate goal are both somewhat bittersweet moments, as Will realizes that both knowledge and power have a price. Will is a welcome addition to the story and his relationship with Lyra is interesting to follow as it develops both in this book and in the final book, The Amber Spyglass.
Other than the Will and Lyra chapters that make up the majority of this book, we also get chapters showing what Serafina Pekkala and Lee Scoresby are up to. These are interesting chapters as they allow the reader to get a broader view of the going-ons of the world(s) as a whole.
No real complaints about this novel. As I mentioned in The Golden Compass review, it sometimes seems like things are a bit too convenient for Lyra (and now Will). This continues to be true somewhat but it keeps the novel moving at a relentless pace, so I certainly don’t mind it.
A surprisingly great middle book in the His Dark Materials Triology. The introduction of Will as the second main protagonist is very welcome. Highly recommended.