Author: Philip Pullman
Publishing Date: 1997
Number of Pages: 288
Genre: Science Fiction, High Fantasy Fiction, Bildungsroman
The intrepid young Lyra has passed through a shimmering portal in the sky and finds herself in a beautiful, haunted otherworld – Cittagazze, where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. But she is not without allies: twelve-year-old Will Parry, fleeing for his life after taking another’s, has also stumbled into this new realm.
On a perilous journey from world to world, Lyra and Will uncover a deadly secret: an object of extraordinary and devastating power. With every step, they move closer to an even greater threat – and the shattering truth of their own destiny.
The first book of the His Dark Materials Trilogy has left such a deep impression on me that I could not contain my excitement and anticipation on what is going to happen to Lyra. The Golden Compass ended in an aplomb and I could not wait for what happens next. From The Golden Compass, I immediately resolved on completing the trilogy, starting with the second book, The Subtle Knife. I was hoping to embark on a literary adventure that is tangential to Lyra’s.
So what happened? After the confrontation at the Northern Lights, Lyra was thrown into a new world. Through the accumulation of Dust, a door to a new dimension opened. Lyra found herself thrown into Cittagazze. It was very much unlike the Oxford that Lyra knew; its denizens don’t possess daemons like they do in her world. It was also populated by children only. Enters a new character – Will Parry. To protect his mentally unstable mother, he took someone else’s life. A fugitive, he accidentally discovered an entrance to a different world.
In Cittagazze, Will’s and Lyra’s paths converge. Will gets fascinated with Pan (Lyra’s daemon) while Lyra gets to enter another dimension, an altogether different Oxford. What they learn from each other fascinated them. But as they try to work things together, they discover a dangerous secret. While getting to the heart of this secret, they cross paths again with Lyra’s biggest arch-nemesis, Mrs. Coulter. However, it wasn’t only Mrs. Coulter’s presence that is daunting; she has supporters in all worlds who are more than willing to do her bidding. Now, Will and Lyra must fulfill their fate as they jump from one world to another while at the same time avoiding Mrs. Coulter and her motley crew.
“Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.” ~ Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife
I have already mentioned during my The Golden Compass review that the trilogy has been widely denounced by the Catholic Church because of its anti-theological theme. There were traces of that subject in the first book but it was in the second book that it begun taking a more palpable shape. The Magisterium and other fictional institutions have joined the fray that Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter has started. Subtly obscured in this battle are the themes that pertain to these anti-religious subjects. It was also in this book that Philip Pullman has lost me.
Pullman has capably established a strong narrative in The Golden Compass. He built the story around a decent plot that is consolidated by a very relatable character and fascinating setting. I thought that he would build around than in the second book while slowly introducing new subjects just like The Ask and the Answer in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy. Contrary to my expectations, it felt like Pullman threw me into a whole new world with barely traces of the old one. At the start, I was perplexed as to the direction that the narrative was taking. It felt like I was walking into a whole new narrative or story.
What I felt lacking was that there was barely any connection between this book and its predecessor. There were a lot of elements in the first book that I liked but most of it were obliterated (in a metaphorical manner of course). There was a loss of focus on Pullman’s part as he tried to awkwardly steer the ship towards controversial and more in-depth subjects. I am using awkward because I truly felt like these subjects were randomly interjected into the story. At this point, the story has become somehow predictable.
“I know whom we must fight, it is the Church. For all its history, it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse.That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.” ~ Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife
If there is a saving grace in the novel, if there is one thing that stood out, it would be the consistency of Philip Pullman’s writing. However, the first book’s writing is still a tad better; it was more descriptive and lyrical. I guess because Pullman was building up the battleground for his trilogy while the second novel has turned situational. Moreover, the quality of dialogues has gone down in The Subtle Knife; it has lost that smooth flow that can be found in The Golden Compass. There was an abrupt shift in perspective and tone as well.
Another thing that I lament in The Subtle Knife is how Lyra’s voice has slowly been taken over by Will’s. She was forced to play second fiddle as Will try to take over the narrative. Although will was, as a character, well-developed, the shift in perspective discombobulated the story to some extent. On a more positive note, it was still a joy reading how their friendship has started to grow, albeit a little too unnaturally.
I always thought that the second book in a trilogy is the part where the stage for a grand ending is set. It is where the author builds upon what he started in the first book. However, and unfortunately, Pullman has different ideas. He built a new road while I was busy navigating the old one and it has thrown me totally off course. It didn’t escape me that the trilogy started as a “dark” series but with the second installment, it has become even “darker”. Nevertheless, it wasn’t an entirely bad story. It was just, well, different; it wouldn’t really matter if you have read the first book or not.
With all these said, please wait for my review on the last book and my concluding remarks on the Trilogy.
“Her last conscious thought was disgust at life; her senses had lied to her. The world was not made of energy and delight but of foulness, betrayal, and lassitude. Living was hateful, and death was no better, and from end to end of the universe this was the first and last and only truth.” ~ Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife
Recommended for young adult fiction readers, for those who loved The Golden Compass movie (although I have never watched it yet), readers who are interesting reading about dark, complex and controversial subject matters, those who are fans of Philip Pullman and his works, and readers who have a very wide imagination and who are not easily offended by religious commentaries.
Not recommended for the devoutly religious who take offense on any kind of commentaries against their religion or any of its bodies, readers who dislike dark and heavy subjects, and readers who want a quick, pleasurable read.
About the Author
To learn about the author of His Dark Materials Trilogy, Philip Pullman, click here.