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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Subtle Knife

by
Philip Pullman


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Subtle Knife



Title: The Subtle Knife
Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997
Length: 326 pages
Availability: The Subtle Knife - US
The Subtle Knife - UK
The Subtle Knife - Canada
The Subtle Knife - India
La Tour des anges - France
Das magische Messer - Deutschland
La lama sottile - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : some good adventures, but very much a bridge between parts one and three of the trilogy

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Fantasy & Science Fiction . 12/1997 Charles de Lint
New Statesman A+ 26/9/1997 Amanda Craig
The NY Rev. of Books . 25/3/2004 Michael Chabon
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/4/1998 Gregory Maguire
Salon . 14/10/1997 Rachel Pastan
San Francisco Chronicle . 30/11/1997 Michael Berry
TLS . 10/12/1997 Sally Visick


  Review Consensus:

  Almost all very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Subtle Knife is as entertaining a read as the first novel, but it also has the same problems. Pullman is obviously a fine writer and he's extremely inventive with his concepts and backgrounds, and the various creatures populating it. But his characterization remains basic at best with only the two main protagonists showing any real life. (...) Then there's the problem of closure, of which there isn't any. This second novel ends with an even less satisfying cliffhanger than did the first, blatantly marking time as the middle book of a trilogy." - Charles de Lint, Fantasy & Science Fiction

  • "This is quite simply the best book I have read this year. It will outlast any Booker contender with ease." - Amanda Craig, New Statesman

  • "The Subtle Knife, with its shifting points of view and its frequent presentation of adult perspectives on Lyra and Will, has much more the flavor of a thriller. It is unflaggingly inventive, chilling and persuasive, has a number of gripping action sequences, and ends with a thrilling zeppelin battle in the Himalayas. But something -- the pleasure inherent, perhaps, in the narrative unfolding of a single consciousness -- is lost in the transition from the first volume to second" - Michael Chabon, The New York Review of Books

  • "The Subtle Knife is really two books spliced together. (...) Just when narrative sprawl is about to overwhelm, the "subtle knife" of the book's title shows up. It can slice through anything -- spirit, matter and middle book syndrome. (...) The Subtle Knife nears magnificence in the loftiness of its moral design." - Gregory Maguire, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Nearly as good as its predecessor (.....) Pullman strikes an excellent balance between imagination and verisimilitude, and his major characters are as interesting and human as anyone we would meet in a decent realistic novel." - Rachel Pastan, Salon

  • "As the middle book of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Subtle Knife necessarily lacks the novelty of its predecessor and leaves the plot dangling with an excruciating cliff-hanger. But it maintains the high standard set by The Golden Compass: its plot every bit as involving and moving, its prose as supple, its characterizations as deft." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The Subtle Knife, the second book in Philip Pullman's excellent His Dark Materials trilogy, is fantasy adventure on the grand scale. (...) Pullman always comes up with a clever twist." - Sally Visick, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Subtle Knife is the middle book of a trilogy, and it depends very much on what came before -- and even more so on the promise of what is to come. On it's own, it dangles uneasily: there's little point to coming to it without having first read Northern Lights (US title: The Golden Compass) -- and readers who finish it without having ready access to the final installment, The Amber Spyglass, will likely find themselves quite frustrated.

       Northern Lights ends with young heroine Lyra walking into another world; The Subtle Knife opens in yet another world -- which happens to be our very own (Lyra's, it will be recalled, was quite a different one -- with daemons, witches, and talking bears, among other things). But The Subtle Knife doesn't begin with Lyra: instead Pullman introduces a second central character, Will Parry. He is a boy of about Lyra's age, and when first encountered is in considerable trouble. His father, John Parry, is -- or was -- an explorer, but he had "vanished long before Will was able to remember him". Now his mother isn't mentally as stable as she should be, and some men keep bothering them, looking for something.
       Will knows what they want -- and things come to a head when he retrieves it and escapes, setting out all alone for Oxford to find some answers. He finds a window -- a small rent in space -- to yet another world, Cittàgaze, and there finds Lyra. Together they jump to and fro between Will's Oxford and Cittàgaze, both looking for answers to their not quite clear problems.
       Meanwhile things also continue apace elsewhere. Mrs. Coulter continues her evil ways, beginning with some witch-torture ("We have a thousand years of experience in this Church of ours. We can draw out your suffering endlessly") to get information about Lyra and what the world is coming to. There's all sorts of activity up north, too, and rumblings of war and the like.
       In Oxford Lyra consults a physicist who is just about to lose her grant funding -- and happens to be working on something that seems to have something to do with the mysterious Dust as well as Lyra's nifty alethiometer, Dr. Mary Malone. Will goes about his own research, trying to learn about his father -- but all of them discover there are sinister others who are also interested in all these goings-on, putting them in some danger.
       Lyra and Will believe they have a place they can always escape to -- Cittàgaze -- but this, too, isn't as benign as hoped for. It is haunted by monstrous Specters who ruin any adult they come across (though children remain unharmed). A crossroads between worlds -- "all the doorways opened into one world" -- Cittàgaze is now a place that essentially no adults can enter, just the most obvious manifestation of a system of worlds gone horribly wrong. When they anger the local children Lyra and Will aren't even safe there.
       The title -- and Will's purpose -- are finally identified: Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife, a wondrous device that allows one to cut windows between alternate universes (as well as being a pretty impressive weapon in its own right).
       The alethiometer also tells Lyra what she must do: help Will find his father. She doesn't right away, leading to some complications, but eventually they flee dangerous Oxford and set out to look for John Parry -- with others still in hot pursuit.
       Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby also undertakes what appears to be a separate adventure, to find someone and then lead him somewhere -- and there's always Mrs.Coulter meddling (very evily) about, and Mary Malone takes some steps to get more involved too.
       There is a bit of closure at the end of the book, but in fact things only look more overwhelming. There is a bit of clarification of what is going on -- "two powers are lining up for battle" (and they both want the subtle knife "more than anything else") -- but it's clear this is still just the build-up for the final conflict. And, of course, there's some cliffhanger-suspense, as the book ends when Will finds: "Lyra was gone, Lyra was captured, Lyra was lost."

       The Subtle Knife offers some good adventures, and in the knife itself at least one brilliantly realised invention. The continuity of action isn't quite so satisfactory, jumping between storylines (focussing of Will, Lyra, Lee, and the witches, among others) in a haphazard way. Some of these stories -- Lee's, parts of Lyra's and Will's -- are enjoyable, but too much feels extraneous and isn't tied in well with the main thrusts of the narrative -- and too much is left untold (what is Lord Asriel doing all this time readers surely want to know, for example).
       Things also continue to happen too conveniently -- as even Pullman seems to acknowledge when he notes how many lucky coincidences there have been: "Each of these chances might have gone a different way". But it's only an observation, not a satisfactory explanation, and doesn't stop him from continuing to heap on the coincidences and just-in-the-nick of time escapes and discoveries.
       Will is a decent new character, but overall the characters -- with some exceptions, like evil Sir Charles Latrom -- are even flatter and less compelling than in Northern Lights, useful for bits of the story but of almost no interest as people (or whatever creatures they may be).
       The Subtle Knife does further the story as a whole, bringing in Will and the knife, but it's clearly only the middle chapters of a larger story and doesn't stand very strongly on its own, requiring the foundation laid out before -- and the resolution to come -- to be worthwhile.

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Links:

The Subtle Knife: Reviews: Philip Pullman: Other books by Philip Pullman under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Philip Pullman was born in 1946. He has written numerous highly acclaimed and prize-winning books, mainly for younger readers.

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