Friday, March 29, 2013

THE SUBTLE KNIFE


Review of THE SUBTLE KNIFE by PHILIP PULLMAN
(second in HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy)

The second book in Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy might be a little disorientating at first. New protagonist. Wait. New world? Both. After the climatic ending of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, we don't return to Lyra and her magical, daemon-filled existence, but to a boy named Will, who appears to live in a world closer to our own. Once the reader adjusts to this sudden shift, the implications rain down. As THE GOLDEN COMPASS revealed, there are multiple worlds, but THE SUBTLE KNIFE's opening establishes that this is no longer the story about one of those worlds; it's a story about the universe that contains all of them. 

THE SUBTLE KNIFE does put me in mind of middle book syndrome, but I hesitate to say that, because Pullman's slower-paced, simpler-plotted book still far exceeds most books you could pluck from the shelves at random. Measured alone, THE SUBTLE KNIFE is an intricate, adventure-packed story. It's only competing against THE GOLDEN COMPASS, Pullman against Pullman, that THE SUBTLE KNIFE feels slower. The reason I mention middle book syndrome at all is that occasionally the story felt fixated more on driving towards book number three than living in its own plot threads. 

In terms of other differences, Lyra loses some of her spunk when she slips into a different world. It's disappointing and a little sad, but also arguably inevitable. She wore arrogance as a shield and being tossed into a new world forces her to acknowledge how much she doesn't know. I also confess that I felt this book less than the first. In both books there's an abundance of death. THE GOLDEN COMPASS often had me gasping aloud at such losses (or repressing a dramatic gasp if I'm in public), but with THE SUBTLE KNIFE I didn't feel much difference between setting description and a death scene. I struggle to pinpoint why, but the tone did strike me as more detached and perhaps that's part of it. I mean this more as an observation than a criticism. Sometimes apathy towards death reinforces the concept of people as pawns in causes greater than any individual. Or draws attention to the unsettling power of war and violence to desensitize and numb. Regardless, HIS DARK MATERIALS is fertile ground for debate and discussion.

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