I rarely read one book after another in a series; I like to have other books interspersed in between to allow me some time to process the events and to put them in perspective. I just couldn’t do that with the His Dark Materials series. The first one was too good. This time, Pullman provides us with a strong hero to go along with the strong heroine he gave us in The Golden Compass, and the result is another wonderful book.
The Subtle Knife starts off with a bang. Will Parry, a young man with an absent father and a mentally ill mother, is forced to leave his mother with a neighbor while he tries to track down his father. On his way out of town, he kills a man who is trying to steal from him and runs from the man’s partner. Seeking a place to hide, he finds a small slit in space and walks through it into another world.
It’s in that other world where he meets up with Lyra. The two band together, moving back and forth between Will’s universe and the crossroads universe known as Cittàgazze. Will’s world matches closely with ours (I suspect it’s supposed to be our world), and Lyra visits a scientist at Oxford to ask about Dust. Her inquiries, combined with Will’s crime, make life a little sketchy for the two of them there.
Things aren’t much better in Cittàgazze. There is an abundance of children, but few cognizant adults. Specters, invisible and harmless to children, seek out adults and seem to feed on their consciousness. Life isn’t easier for Lyra and Will in this child-only place; events occur that make it just as uncomfortable and dangerous as Will’s world.
Part of the danger comes from Lyra ignoring the alethiometer. It tells her that her task is to assist Will in his quest to find his father, and she seeks out information on Dust instead, which tips off the people looking for Will. One ignores an oracle at one’s peril, it would appear.
Throughout the book, Pullman gives us more information about the larger story behind the smaller events of Lyra and Will’s lives. The Oxford scientist, Mary Malone, is researching dark matter (what she terms “Shadows”), and also used to be a nun. On Lyra’s first visit, she asks about Dust, and the connection is made that dark matter and Dust are most likely the same thing — which helps them to some extent, but leaves them still not knowing exactly what it is.
We also get more theology mixed in here. There are angels traveling through the universes to join with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father. Lyra herself is talked about in some religiously-interesting ways. We still have witches — Serafina Pekkala is still with us — but we also gain a shaman.
And, of course, there’s the knife itself. Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife at a high price and knows of its powers to keep away specters. What he doesn’t know is that it has some other interesting lore attached to it, and that lore may have a great deal to say about what Will’s destiny is.
The most interesting thing to me about The Subtle Knife is the mythology Pullman is building. I really want to know what’s going on, and can’t wait to get into the third book to see how he wraps everything up. I’m at a complete loss for how this is going to play out, and it makes me really happy to find a book series that keeps me guessing. Maybe it’ll be fantastic, maybe it’ll fall apart at the end; the fun is in the anticipation of how great it can be, which makes this book pretty great in and of itself.