Book review: The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
Series: His Dark Materials #2
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: Goodreads • Amazon
Publication Date: July 22, 1997
Source: I’m pretty sure this was a gift

Lost in a new world, Lyra finds Will—a boy on the run, a murderer—a worthy and welcome ally. For this is a world where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and witches share the skies with troops of angels.

Each is searching—Lyra for the meaning of Dark Matter, Will for his missing father—but what they find instead is a deadly secret, a knife of untold power. And neither Lyra nor Will suspects how tightly their lives, their loves, and their destinies are bound together… until they are split apart.


This is not the first time I’ve tried to review The Subtle Knife.  I often leave reviews half-finished because I have to leave for work or make dinner or do the laundry or take a phone call.  Or whatever.  Usually they’re still waiting for me when I get back to my computer.  But sometimes my computer decides to be a jerk and do some updates while I’m away… at which point it deletes my entire review and I give up for awhile.

This happened twice with The Subtle Knife.  So this time, I’m just going to try to write it in one sitting.  I’m also going to try to follow the same format I used in my review for The Golden Compass.

In The Subtle Knife, we meet Will, a young boy from our world who has stumbled into the strange world of Cittagazze, where children run free and there are no adults to be found.  It’s not long before he meets Lyra, and the two become friends while figuring out exactly how they both came to be in this unusual place.

The children soon find that not everything in Cittagazze is like our world, or like Lyra’s.  Will becomes the new owner of the subtle knife, a knife so sharp that it can cut portals between worlds.  As Will and Lyra travel between worlds, they encounter fallen angels and evil Specters.  Mrs. Coulter and her terrifying golden monkey are an ever-present threat.  Lord Asriel’s betrayal looms over Lyra.  The alethiometer tells her she must put her own hopes and dreams aside to help Will find his father.  All these elements add up to Lyra maturing and learning to think before she acts.

So here’s what I liked:

1) Will.  This poor kid.  He’s had to take on so much responsibility in his short life, protecting his mother from evil men, and then hiding her mental illness from the authorities so they won’t take him away from her.  It’s crazy that one young boy can go through so much.  And yet Will doesn’t let that break him.  He’s strong, and brave, and kind.  He’s an admirable character.

2) The different worlds.  I’m a sucker for parallel worlds anyway, but I thought these were really well done.  There are worlds like Lyra’s and Will’s, which are similar enough in that they have a lot of the same cities, buildings, and concepts, just with different names.  Then there are worlds that are completely different, like Cittagazze, in which there are only children, because soul-sucking Specters go after the adults.  It was always exciting to see which world Will and Lyra would find themselves in next.

3) Lyra’s character development.  Remember that girl who would almost purposely get herself into terrible situations, just so she could talk her way out?  Yeah, she’s gone, replaced by a more mature young woman who clearly thinks out what her next move should be.  Lyra has learned that one wrong move could risk Will’s safety, and that’s not something she’s willing to do.

4) Will and Lyra’s relationship.  It’s pretty clear in The Subtle Knife that Will has never really had friends before.  Friends might mention to their parents that something seems a little off with Will’s mom, and then he might be taken away from her.  Lyra seems to be Will’s first real friend, and I couldn’t help but smile at how quickly they became best friends, and how easily they adapted to each other’s company.

I liked this book so much that I powered my way through it, reading it in about half the time it took me to finish The Golden Compass.

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