The Subtle Knife
A book review for parents
This second science fiction/fantasy book in the "His Dark Materials" series by Philip Pullman is published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children's Books.
The Subtle Knife is written for kids ages 13 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
The second book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy continues Lyra's story and introduces us to the series' other main protagonist, Will Parry. Will, like Lyra, is a headstrong 12-year-old who hails from a different world than Lyra: Late 20th-century Earth (i.e., our own world). While trying desperately to take care of his mentally ill mother and solve the mystery of his father's disappearance 10 years before, Will stumbles into a portal to another world — the very world that Lyra entered herself at the end of The Golden Compass. It's not long before they find one another and begin to develop a friendship as fellow strangers in a strange land. They learn that the world is populated primarily by children because most of the adults have been attacked and driven away by soul-eating wraiths known as Specters. The plot turns around Will's discovery of the subtle knife, an implement of immense capability that allows him to cut portals between the myriad of alternate realities that exist simultaneously. And, it turns out, it's a weapon that could be the deciding factor in the coming war that Lord Asriel is planning against the God-like figure known as the Authority. Subtle knife in hand, Will and Lyra try to stay one step ahead of Church forces that are pursuing them, led by the wicked Mrs. Coulter — even as they continue to try to sort out the mystery of Dust and what role they have to play in the coming conflict. Most of the supporting cast that readers met in the first book returns, and this time several important angel characters are introduced. Another significant new character is Mary Malone, an ex-nun turned physicist from Will's world.
This volume begins to criticize more explicitly both the Church's practices and its beliefs. Mrs. Coulter brags about the Church's long experience with torture: "Oh, there is more suffering to come. We have a thousand years of experience in this Church of ours. We can draw out your suffering endlessly." Lord Asriel's longtime servant says of his master, "Lord Asriel has never found hisself at ease with the doctrines of the Church, so to speak. I've seen a spasm of disgust cross his face when they talk of the sacraments, and atonement, and redemption, and suchlike." Given such sentiments, it's not a shock when readers learn that Lord Asriel is planning a rebellion against the Authority himself. "He's a-going to find the Authority and kill Him," says Asreil's servant. Finally, the same character introduces readers to the Church's idea of angels. "[Angels are] beings of pure spirit, the Church says. The Church teaches that some of the angels rebelled before the world was created, and got flung out of heaven and into hell." With the help of those very same angels, as well as many other creatures from various worlds, Lord Asriel begins to assemble an army to challenge the Authority again. Angels are described as incredibly ancient, awe-inspiring and naked spirit beings. "Each angel was distinctly an individual. ... What they shared was a shimmering, darting play of intelligence and feeling that seemed to sweep over them all simultaneously. They were naked, but she felt naked in front of their glance, it was so piercing and went so deep." A witch delivers a scathing commentary on what the Church means to her. "I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history — and that's not long by our lives, but it's man of theirs — it's tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can't control them, it cuts them out. ... Sisters, you know only the north; I have traveled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did — not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs out, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shant feel. That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other." Near the end, it's revealed that Lyra is a second Eve, and that she will have to undergo a temptation that will have ramifications for all of creation.
More so than The Golden Compass, Lyra and Will are mostly on their own in this story as they explore a world that's not their own. Mary Malone and Lyra form a friendship, and Mary's influence will be even more significant in the third book.
Other Belief Systems
Will Parry eventually learns that his father, John Parry, has found a portal to other worlds as well. The elder Parry has learned much in his 10 years traveling between worlds, becoming, in his own words, a shaman. He says of his new capabilities, "As a shaman, I can discover things in the spirit where I cannot go in the body, and I spent much time in trance, exploring that world." The narrator describes the witch Serafina Pekkala's occult and pagan powers in more detail: "She could track any animal, catch any fish, find the rarest of berries; and she could read the signs in the pine marten's entrails, or decipher wisdom in the scales of a perch, or interpret the warnings in the crocus pollen; but these were children of nature, and they told her natural truths. The witch also casts a long spell of healing that begins with her saying, "Blood! Obey me! Turn around, be a lake and not a river." The spell involves apparently sacrificing a hare (which is later restored to life). Mary Malone, the ex-nun, has apparently lost most of her belief in good and evil ("D'you know how embarrassing it is to mention good and evil in a scientific laboratory? ... One of the reasons I became a scientist was not to have to think about that kind of thing"). She also establishes contact with dark matter particles, a.k.a. Dust, and finds that they actually have consciousness. Evolution plays an increasingly prominent role in explaining how Dust coalesced into the first sentient beings. Specters are described as something like "soul vampires" that devour the souls of their adult victims and leave people wandering around aimlessly, like zombies, after they've been attacked. Lyra continues to consult the alethiometer. Likewise, Will must enter a trance-like state to use the subtle knife.
Mr. Lee Scoresby continues to occasionally use the words h--- and d--n. Will loses two fingers in a battle for the knife and has to keep rewrapping bandages on his bloody hand for the remainder of the story. The use of a hare in a witches spell involves slicing open its stomach ("The animal was panting, wild-eyed, kicking furiously, but the witch's hands were merciless. In one she held its forelegs and with the other she grasped its hind legs and pulled the frenzied hare out straight, its heaving belly upward. Serafina's knife swept across it. ... The real hare fell still, eyes bulging, breast heaving, entrails glistening"). There's more fighting and killing overall in The Subtle Knife than there was in The Golden Compass.
There's a veiled allusion to a witch named Ruta Skadi having sex with Lord Asriel.
Parents' Choice Gold Book Award, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Booklist Editors' Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- One of the witches talks about what Asriel showed her with regard to the Authority. "He showed me things I had never seen, cruelties and horrors all committed in the name of the Authority, all designed to destroy the joys and truthfulness of life." To say that God wants to destroy all the joy and truthfulness in life is a terrible, blasphemous lie. Speaking about exactly such lies, Jesus identifies a thief with wicked intent (who is probably Satan), but says that He has come to bring abundant life: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:10-11).
Talk about how your faith leads to joy and goodness, and a deeper ability to recognize and enter into the very best things in life.
AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
- Lord Asriel completely dismisses the Church and its theology. The writers of Scripture, however, attest to the fact that it is trustworthy. Paul wrote to Timothy, a young pastor, "But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."
Why do you think it's important to have a good working knowledge of Scripture when evaluating the claims about Christianity and the Bible that are made in popular entertainment in general and Pullman's stories in particular?
- How does Scripture equip believers to recognize and refute deceptive spiritual untruths such as those found in The Subtle Knife?
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.