The Subtle Knife (1997) by Philip Pullman

THE SUBTLE KNIFE is a rare sequel in what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t immediately follow up on the previous book, it takes its time following the characters of the previous book (and it only follows some), it immediately differs sharply in tone…it’s jarring, and one could even find it to feel more like a spinoff, or loosely connected companion story, rather than a sequel at first. This is what’s so successful about the novel. It redefines the series, the stakes, the world(s), the characters in all these ways that deepen the storytelling, retroactively making the first novel almost seem like a trick, a feint, a narrative to be substituted, if it didn’t always feel like author Philip Pullman had a deft hand regarding how he wanted to steer the overall story of the trilogy. There’s some case of middle book blues towards the end, when the cliffhangers work less like the first novel’s (which invite wonder at what happens next, while still satisfactorily answering mysteries and arcs raised over the course of the novel), but for the most part, it’s a cohesive work following the new character of Will Parry, as well as Lee Scoresby in a kind of side arc.

The reducing of Lyra Silvertongue is fascinating, with seeing her principally from a new character’s point of view an interesting way to frame and reconsider her. Will and Lyra’s curiosity about each other, their conflicts, the growth of their relationship, it all feels natural and like it should for children of their age. Their nature as two children from different worlds is always interesting…

“Electric … that’s like electrum. That’s a kind of stone, a jewel, made out of gum from trees. There’s insects in it, sometimes.”
“You mean amber,” he said, and they both said, “Anbar …”
And each of them saw their own expression on the other’s face. Will remembered that moment for a long time afterward.

…but it’s the development of their relationship that provides most of the meat on the novel’s plate. What works more spottily there is Lyra acting meeker, which the novel justifies decently given how she let down a friend in the previous novel, but works against much of what works best about the character. Part of this comes down to chapters usually not being told from her perspective, and part of it down to Will being the main character of this novel in a plot sense as well, but it feels shaky at times, with the more stereotypical casting of gender dynamics (Will in control, Lyra subservient) feeling oddly in key with more traditional stories like THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, which Pullman explicitly wanted to provide a contrast to with this series.

[spoilers for THE SUBTLE KNIFE follow]

“But the spell didn’t work. I keep losing blood. I can’t have much left to lose. And it’s bleeding again, and it won’t stop. I’m frightened.…”
“Lyra doesn’t think you are.”
“Doesn’t she?”
“She thinks you’re the bravest fighter she ever saw, as brave as Iorek Byrnison.”
“I suppose I better try not to seem frightened, then,” Will said. He was quiet for a minute or so, and then he said, “I think Lyra’s braver than me. I think she’s the best friend I ever had.”
“She thinks that about you as well,” whispered the dæmon.
Presently Will closed his eyes.
Lyra lay unmoving, but her eyes were wide open in the dark, and her heart was beating hard.

One of the novel’s best tricks is how it ends up winding together aspects of the first book with seemingly original aspects to itself. These ‘character fusions’ are handled very well, particularly in the case of the scholar Grumman / the shaman Jopari / Will’s father John Parry. This is perhaps the clearest throughline of the book, and the way Pullman refuses to resolve it with a wholesome reunion, or a clear and tidy denouement, is admirable. This is one of Pullman’s best strengths, his understanding of the storytelling power of tragedy, and seeming lack of temptation to treat his characters in limp, nice, boring ways. This is also seen in the surprising, and moving, death of fan favourite Lee Scoresby, which is perhaps the best piece of writing in the series thus far.

What this speaks to is Pullman’s understanding of scale. This is a huge part of why the tone and content shifts from the first to second novel work, and why the novels always feel shakier when they’re in the heads of adult characters rather than children – there is a vast, epic story going on in the background, nipping at the edges of the tale we’re being told about Lyra and Will. And that works wonderfully because mystery is tantalising and imagination is key to storytelling, especially for children. So hearing garbled word of Lord Asriel perhaps time-travelling, perhaps universe-hopping, building some insane stronghold from where he’ll try to murder God, it all works so much better for being heard as rumours and secondhand word, rather than actually following the story thread itself.

“There are two great powers,” the man said, “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 between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.

This is also why the Biblical aspects, like the Guild of Cittàgazze and the principal characters of the trilogy unknowingly recreating aspects of Genesis and Original Sin, feel exciting rather than tedious – we gain understanding slowly, through hints, and very carefully paced dolls of information, so our curiosity and anticipation grows. Pullman has a very strong hand on the pacing of information revealed to the reader, something every adaption of the series seems to cock up in their rush to try and overwhelm audiences with how exciting the overall story is, where in the process they greatly diminish the whole appeal by removing the manner of informational flow key to caring much about those stakes and overall story in the first place. A rare lapse in this kind of skill was when Pullman had a character draw attention to a parallel between how witches made themselves invisible and how Will made adults not notice him.

The shakiest part of the novel is Pullman’s metaphor for mental illness, the literal Spectres. In an online Q&A (, Pullman said ‘As for Specters, they were a way of talking about certain mental states such as depression and self-hatred’.

In the novel, Spectres attack adults, turning them into lifeless husks.

“Well, when a Specter catch a grownup, that’s bad to see. They eat the life out of them there and then, all right. I don’t want to be grown up, for sure. At first they know it’s happening, and they’re afraid; they cry and cry. They try and look away and pretend it ain’ happening, but it is. It’s too late. And no one ain’ gonna go near them, they on they own. Then they get pale and they stop moving. They still alive, but it’s like they been eaten from inside. You look in they eyes, you see the back of they heads. Ain’ nothing there.”

The Spectres aren’t interested in children.

“What the hell are those things?” said Lee.
“The people call them Specters.”
“What do they do, exactly?”
“You’ve heard of vampires?”
“Oh, in tales.”
“The Specters feast as vampires feast on blood, but the Specters’ food is attention. A conscious and informed interest in the world. The immaturity of children is less attractive to them.”

Although the novel does do away with the more childish idea of the first book that there is some unshakable distinction between children and adults, and that children are incapably of certain types of villainy.

“But after that I never trusted children any more than grownups. They’re just as keen to do bad things. So I wasn’t surprised when those kids in Ci’gazze did that.”

But on the matter of Spectres, the metaphor maps very oddly. One of the more affecting parts of the novel is Will thinking about his mother’s condition in an early chapter.

Will had first realized his mother was different from other people, and that he had to look after her, when he was seven. They were in a supermarket, and they were playing a game: they were allowed to put an item in the cart only when no one was looking. It was Will’s job to look all around and whisper “Now,” and she would snatch a tin or a packet from the shelf and put it silently into the cart. When things were in there they were safe, because they became invisible.
It was a good game, and it went on for a long time, because this was a Saturday morning and the shop was full, but they were good at it and worked well together. They trusted each other. Will loved his mother very much and often told her so, and she told him the same.
So when they reached the checkout Will was excited and happy because they’d nearly won. And when his mother couldn’t find her purse, that was part of the game too, even when she said the enemies must have stolen it; but Will was getting tired by this time, and hungry too, and Mummy wasn’t so happy anymore. She was really frightened, and they went around and around putting things back on the shelves, but this time they had to be extra careful because the enemies were tracking them down by means of her credit card numbers, which they knew because they had her purse.…
And Will got more and more frightened himself. He realized how clever his mother had been to make this real danger into a game so that he wouldn’t be alarmed, and how, now that he knew the truth, he had to pretend not to be frightened, so as to reassure her.
So the little boy pretended it was a game still, so she didn’t have to worry that he was frightened, and they went home without any shopping, but safe from the enemies; and then Will found the purse on the hall table anyway. On Monday they went to the bank and closed her account, and opened another somewhere else, just to be sure. Thus the danger passed.
But sometime during the next few months, Will realized slowly and unwillingly that those enemies of his mother’s were not in the world out there, but in her mind. That made them no less real, no less frightening and dangerous; it just meant he had to protect her even more carefully. And from the moment in the supermarket when he had realized he must pretend in order not to worry his mother, part of Will’s mind was always alert to her anxieties. He loved her so much he would have died to protect her.

Later, Will believes a literal Spectre was the cause of some of his mother’s mental illness. This being a mistake of naivete would be affecting, but externalising mental illness as the cause of extradimensional creatures attacking people feels dangerous and immature in a way Pullman’s general treatment of ‘adult topics’ doesn’t. It feels patronising and muddled, not useful to children in their development of understanding of such topics, and not thematically interesting or coherent enough to really work on its own terms in the novel. What does it say about mentally ill people, this metaphor? If it was all couched in terms of Will gaining a false hope about how his mother might be ‘cured’ or some such, that might work as an appropriate way to use fantasy notions to examine such a topic, but the Spectres are a consistent and important worldbuilding element in the novel in their own right, so it all gets confused.

Regardless, it’s a strong children’s novel, much more interesting and skillfully-written than the first, and a great example of how a sequel can be iterative, original, surprising, and a genuine shake-up, deepening the preceding work while telling its own powerful story in the process. Three and a half windows, and a green case.

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