The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

#45 in my 2007 book challenge was The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman, the sequel to The Golden Compass. It is a characteristic second book in a trilogy. The beloved and hated characters are back, the plot speeds along, but the end is more cliffhanging than that of the first book. I am glad to be reading this trilogy when I can immediately pick up book 3, since there was a long time between the publishing of the last two books.

TSK shares many strengths with TGC: nefarious villains, engaging child protagonists, religion, adventure, and the utterly engaging daemons, familiars who take animal form and accompany their human partners in the world of heroine Lyra. But it also shares the shortcomings. The adults are either entirely good, or entirely evil. Religion is completely messed up. And all parents are, in some way, bad parents; the only good adults are non parents. The children are wise and well spoken beyond their years. As the book progressed, I became increasingly irritated by the construct of the alethiometer, the device the first book was named after. Since it’s all knowing and Lyra can magically read it exactly and perfectly, then there is little that’s left to chance for the children. They know far too much about what’s happening and what’s going to happen for there to be a believable and constant tension. Finally, I thought there were far too few armored polar bears in this book compared to its predecessor.

I feel bad criticizing this book; I know so many friends who love the series, and they are friends whose taste I admire and respect. I raced through the book, and enjoyed it. But I was also nagged by little things as I sped along that left me feeling unsatisfied by the end.

2 Responses to “The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman”

  1. Kate Says:

    I feel like it’s been too long since I read this to comment on it, or counter any of your points–all three books run together, so it’s hard to remember what happens in which, and I don’t want to spoil anything. You make good ones, especially about the parents, which I hadn’t noticed. Though, were the gypsies in this one? Because they had a son, and they were fully good. Oddly, some of the best character development is the armed polar bears . . .

    I felt better about the whole series when I reread it–the first time I thought the theology stuff was kind of messed up and confusing, but part of that was because I raced through them so fast the first time.

    I think what I liked about the whole trilogy was the general atmosphere of the books, the characters of the children, and the escapism to another, pretty fully realized, world.

    I’m curious about a book in general–do you have Jamestown on your list to read? It received so many good reviews, but I really disliked it. So now I feel like the person who smells bad milk and then sticks it in your nose and says “Smell–it’s bad, right?” I was wondering what your take on it might be, at some point in the future.


  2. girldetective Says:

    The gypsies were good, but they were only in the first book, and I felt uncomfortable with the whole “noble and poor minority” cliche.

    Haven’t heard good things about Jamestown, and there’s some definite dislike from reviewers at Amazon, so I probably won’t “smell the milk”–I’ll trust you on that!