I was getting ready to re-read Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife when I saw Claire Light’s negative and spoiler-filled comments. They seemed the kind of things that I might also object to, and I barely remembered the book, so I went into the re-read warily.
I regret to say that I mostly agree with her: this is a much weaker book than either The Golden Compass or the book in my memory. First, I was immediately distracted by the way the omniscient narration veered from character to character. The head-hopping within scenes was notably bad, but for me the shifting among separated characters also weakened the book: I like Lee Scoresby and Serafina Pekkala, but I didn’t find their strands of the story very compelling (again like Light, I am puzzled by Scoresby’s sudden abject devotion to Lyra), and the prose style seemed less suited to the adults than to Lyra.
The other major change is the introduction of Will, of course. I have a lot of sympathy for Will, but I found myself unhappy with the balance the book struck between him and Lyra. For all that my first reaction was “hey, cool line,” when Lyra immediately trusts Will because he is a murderer, now that I stop and think, it doesn’t actually make much sense, even for her. And as a result, Lyra eventually effaces herself in an out-of-character way that makes me twitch, especially when combined with her growing feelings for Will (which either are not reciprocated, or are not discussed in the same way) and with the portrayal of the witches; they collectively hint at a system of gender relations that I dislike.
This book also explicitly introduces the idea of a war in heaven. I remember that when I first read it, I couldn’t tell which side I was supposed to root for, and even now that I know which side the story takes, I still can’t see it: so if I’m supposed to be taking a side by this point, the book has failed. (I can’t remember if the third book is actually convincing in this regard, and I’m not going to re-read and see.) Bad things are again done by all sides, with nothing obvious for me to choose among them. They further lack the ferocious impact of the end of The Golden Compass, I think because they stem from the subplots that didn’t engage me as much.
But on the bright side, having been disappointed by this book, there’s no way I’m going to waste my time with a re-read of The Amber Spyglass.