By Philip Pullman
There are two great powers, and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously by those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.
Pullman is a good storyteller. Pullman’s imagination and the beautiful worlds that he creates with his words are limitless. His protagonist, Lyra, is strong and brave, but she still has her faults and setbacks. His stories don’t shy away from difficult questions and large concepts. And in the second book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman has upped the ante. The Subtle Knife is fast-paced, imaginative, and mesmerizing. It is an exhilarating and fun read that I devoured in just a few days.
The Subtle Knife picks up where The Golden Compass left off. Lyra follows her father into the new world he has opened and finds herself in more danger and more alone than she has ever been in her life. She meets Will, a young boy from our Earth who also stumbled into this new world. They find comfort and friendship in each other, and the two unlikely heroes band together to help each other survive and find the answers to their questions.
Still, Pullman somehow manages to miss the mark with this book. There are big holes in the plot and events that will leave the reader feeling frustrated and skeptical. For instance, there is no clear antagonist. In the first book the antagonists are trying to kill the Authority, who turns out to be the (possible) antagonist of the second book. So does that mean the first book’s antagonists are actually good guys? But wait . . . they killed children! They were definitely evil. So if both sides of this war are evil, what side are we on? If you’re confused, welcome to the club. Perhaps Pullman intentionally wrote the story this way to increase its mystique, but for now I find it more frustrating than intriguing.
There also seems to be a disconnect between the overarching themes and questions of Pullman’s tale and Lyra’s adventures and goals. Throughout the story so far, Lyra has remained blissfully unaware of the darker ideas about corrupt churches and killing God. Although it is very clear due to Pullman’s (once again) very obtuse foreshadowing that Lyra’s story is essential to these subplots, two-thirds of the way through the series there is still no concrete examples answering how they are connected.
Yet despite these lofty themes, Pullman shies away from answering complicated questions. After a witch kills a fairly important character and Will demands to know why, she simply answers, “No, I can’t explain. You’re too young. It wouldn’t make sense to you. I loved him. That’s all. That’s enough.” No, actually, that’s not enough. Essentially, Pullman needed to kill this character but couldn’t think of a good reason to do so. Cop-out if I ever read one. Readers need to be able to trust that the questions and conflicts presented in the story will be answered and resolved. However, as His Dark Materials‘ plot thickens and more complicated questions are presented, we don’t receive very many answers to the questions posed in either of the books so far.
The Subtle Knife was so close to being a good book. I really enjoyed reading it, but then afterwards I would wake up in the middle of the night and realize something about it that bothered me. “Wait a second! Why did Lyra even follow her dad into that new world anyway? Was it just because Roger died? . . . What a dumb reason.” Or it would hit me just as I was leaving my apartment in the morning. “Wait . . . so we are on Lord Asriel’s side because he’s trying to kill the Authority. But he definitely killed Lyra’s best friend in cold blood. Am I just supposed to just forget about that?!” If I could just read the books and then move on without thinking about them, I would probably enjoy the series, but so far, His Dark Materials has been like a cup of tea: delicious at first, but the longer you let it steep, the more bitter it becomes.