Pullman, Philip: (02) The Subtle Knife

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.

4 Comments

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  1. In the process of re-reading the trilogy for Yuletide in 2006, I realized abruptly that Pullman only figured out what he was doing about 200 pages into The Subtle Knife, and was forced to re-structure and retcon on the fly throughout the remainder of the series. The portentous lines between Asriel and Coulter (repeated and reinterpreted through the series), and the reorientation of the Coulter character, both show really big signposts of the reworking.
    (I mean, he knew he was writing an anti-authoritarian rebuke to Milton; but I don’t think he knew how the parental generation’s struggles would figure into the story as told surrounding the children until pretty late-on.)
    In some ways, that made it easier for me to climb into the universe: the obvious seams gave me wiggle room, so to speak. I also discovered that I had to ask — and upon asking, realized my own answer to — the question, “What is a daemon like at birth?” I began but never finished a scene of Will wandering around a hospital, and happening upon the neonatal wing, and standing transfixed as crickets and butterflies dry their wings, standing on their people’s foreheads.

  2. You see structure differently than I do, so I’ll have to take your word for it (in as non-dismissive a way as possible).
    Something I forgot to say: Asriel in this was peculiar. Ability to stretch time and gather massive armies, huh what? Where did *that* all come from?
    And that is an awesome image.

  3. I have been intending to re-read the series myself soon, and for some reason The Subtle Knife is on my shelf minus the others. I remember being uneasy about the books the first time I read them (I was pretty religious at the time) but now I wonder if it was literary flaws as well that made me pause; as you aptly remind me.

  4. Jeane: the first book held up pretty well for me, though only you know whether it would be satisfying to stop your re-read there.

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