Following rapidly on from Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife expands on the dramatic conclusion of the previous book. The actions of Lord Asriel have had huge ramifications, not just for Lyra’s world, but a whole host of other universes as well. One of those that feels the effects is our own. The Subtle Knife opens in Oxford (the real world version, rather than Lyra’s) and follows Will, a young boy who has to deal with men who raid his home looking for something left by his missing father. When this incident ends in a violent conclusion, Will runs away to find help.
However, things take a turn for the mysterious when he finds a window to another world. Desperate, Will enter and finds himself in a city where children run freely and adults are hunted by ghostly creatures known as Spectres. While searching this new land, Will comes across Lyra and Pantalaimon. Together, the two of them embark on an adventure that sees them meet up with new friends and old foes, while moving between worlds and encountering the mysterious ‘Subtle Knife’, a weapon that can cut through virtually anything, including the gaps between worlds.
The Subtle Knife focuses on expanding the lore introduced by Northern Lights. Where the original book focused on elements like dæmons and Dust, The Subtle Knife explains how the intricacies of Lyra’s world match up with others. Will suggests that Pantalaimon is a visual form of a person’s soul. It’s fascinating to see how Pullman introduced these concepts in the first book and expands them over different worlds in the second. The focus on different worlds helps to provide the book with a fresh vibrant style. In having two main protagonists covering multiple worlds, the narrative style alters as a result. This is further impacted on by chapter following other returning characters, such as Serafina Pekkala and Lee Scoresby. All are distinctive personalities, but each of them brings something unique to the story.
This is true of Will as well. Will tends to be more cautious than Lyra, but also carries a lot of self doubt and concerns as a result of the difficult childhood he has endured. He clashes and plays off of Lyra’s more privileged upbringing, but the two come to rely on each other greatly as the book develops. I remember not liking Will’s character when I originally read the book, mainly as he seemed the opposite of the more rambunctious Lyra. However, this reading has given me a greater appreciation for the qualities that both characters share, such as their determination and desire to do the right thing. The characters do differ, but it’s those differences that helps to make their relationship so rewarding to follow.
I should also mention Mary Malone, a researcher from the ‘real world’ conducting experiments on a mysterious phenomenon. Lyra encounters her and talks to Mary about Dust, believing there may be a connection to the substance she is aware of and the one Mary researches. She’s another interesting, well developed character whose role becomes increasingly important as the true nature of Dust (or shadow particles, as Mary knows them) becomes clear. She helps guide Lyra and is a friend in an unfamiliar place for her. As for Mary’s later significance, this is something that will develop further in The Amber Spyglass.
If there is one complaint I’d have of The Subtle Knife, it’s that neither the ‘real world’ or Cittàgazze, the world where Will and Lyra meet, feel as developed as Lyra’s world. This might be inevitable, given Lyra’s world had a whole book to be developed, but we hardly glimpse outside of one city in either world. Lyra’s Oxford dissected society down to the different groups sharing the city. Neither location enjoys such analysis in this book. It’s a small negative, but one that has an impact.
It’s easy to take the success of The Subtle Knife for granted now, over twenty years after its publication, however it represented a big risk for the His Dark Materials trilogy at the time. By opening up these books to the concept of multiple worlds, the credibility built up by Northern Lights could easily have been lost. Thankfully, by creating intriguing new worlds, memorable characters and maintaining the themes that made the first book a success, The Subtle Knife successfully bridges an enthralling trilogy before arriving at a thrilling conclusion in The Amber Spyglass.