Book Review: The Subtle Knife


But Will knew without the slightest doubt that that patch of grass on the other side was in a different world.

The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

After thoroughly enjoying The Golden Compass, I moved speedily onward in the trilogy. I find that middle books in trilogies can often be dull. The first book is exciting because introduces the reader to a new universe, and the finale is exciting simply because it is the end of an epic tale. But the second book is often full of unnecessary plot points, lazy characterization, and filler material (I’m looking at you, Catching Fire).

In that respect, The Subtle Knife is much more than a run-of-the-mill middle book in a trilogy. The reader is introduced to new universes, each with their own unique characteristics, and despite the large number of new characters, they’re not difficult to keep track of, and all of the stories converge by the end of the book. I missed reading about the armoured bears, but it was interesting seeing Lyra navigate an Oxford closer to the one I had the chance to explore a few summers ago.

One thing I loved about The Subtle Knife is something I usually love about fantasy novels–the notion of destiny, as cheesy as that sounds. Or maybe it’s more correct to say destined greatness, to avoid the image of melodramatic, star-crossed lovers. For me, fantasy is a way to escape the mundanity of real life, and the idea that someone is the Prince Who Was Promised, the centre of some great prophecy, is just too, well, cool. And The Subtle Knife is full of grandiose hints, from the adults, the witches, the narrator, that both Lyra and Will are more than just children, that they are destined to do important things.

Will and Lyra are both on the cusp of adulthood, and I liked that Will reflected certain qualities in Lyra’s personality that I liked–that he is a good person overall, but makes mistakes. He cares deeply for his mother, and eventually for Lyra, but he’s willing to lie, cheat, and even murder to accomplish his goals. He’s human, and relatable, like all of the characters, even the ones who technically aren’t human.

For me, even Mrs. Coulter has her human moments. Of course, her background story as related in The Golden Compass elicits some sympathy, but when I considered how much Mrs. Coulter has to bend the Magisterium’s rules, simply because she’s a woman, I understood her character more clearly. Her frustration with the church is clear.

The book gets a little preachy about how the church is oppressing its people, suppressing natural impulses, making people ashamed about their sexuality, etc., but I personally didn’t find it unbearable. I took it as more of a lesson to question authority, and to think analytically about situations, which I don’t think is necessarily bad to teach young adult readers.

YES OR NO?: YES. This isn’t as strong a read at the first book in the trilogy, and the story gets a bit convoluted, but I’d still recommend it for all readers. And onward to The Amber Spyglass!


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