'The Subtle Knife' - Book Review

The Subtle Knife
by Philip Pullman
Yearling, 326p.

This is the sequel to The Golden Compass.

The book starts with the introduction of Will Parry, a twelve year old boy who lives with his mother in Oxford, England (this is our Oxford, not the alternate one that Lyra from the previous book lives in). While protecting his mother during a house break-in, he accidentally kills a man, and flees - finding his way to the almost-abandoned city of Cittàgazze on another world. Once there, he meets Lyra, who stepped through to another world at the end of the previous book. The two of them travel back and forth between his world and Cittàgazze: Lyra finds out about Dust / Dark Matter, and Will has an unhappy encounter with a knife. They become close friends under the worst of circumstances. It's a very good book, although the ending is spectacularly dark.

I started this trilogy re-read to compare the books to the recent TV Series. The comparison that follows will wander into SPOILER territory - for this book and the last book. What I mostly found is that the series is surprisingly accurate to the book - what was less accurate was my own memory of this book. I found slight changes to the story line, but most interesting to me were a couple things they dropped: the lesser item was the implication of sexual play between dæmons of flirting couples (this wasn't obvious enough to be a problem for kids reading it ... I don't think - I'm not a parent).

In the book, the witches fly on branches of "cloud pine." In the TV series, sprigs of cloud pine seem to be embedded under their skin so they just fly like Superman without apparent assistance. I get why they did it: flying around on a pine branch is too similar to witches on broomsticks, a trope we've all had enough of ... except that this change wasn't that big an improvement.

A much bigger difference (to my mind) is the wording they use to approach the coming battle. The TV series acknowledges that Lyra is Eve, and the battle is between those who want her fall (that would the the good guys, if you're not familiar with Pullman ...) and those who don't (The Church, very unpleasant people). But the TV series is more subtle (if you'll pardon me using that word) about how they address the battle. They don't say much more about it, but Pullman surely does. He says Lord Asriel is going to war not with the globe-spanning Church (because it's too small a target!) but God himself ("The Authority"). Although Asriel is shown recruiting angels for his war in the TV series.

The witches in the story are essentially a force for good (we see this mostly in the form of Serafina Pekkala, queen of one of the tribes). In the previous book, we (and the witches) discovered that the facility at Bolvangar was experimenting on children, cutting their dæmons (essentially their souls) away from them to "prevent the uncomfortable feelings of adulthood." In this book, another witch addresses their council: "There are churches [in the south], believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did - not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls, they cut them with knives so that they shan't feel. That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." Pullman has it in specifically for the Catholic Church, but seems perfectly happy to go after any organized religion at all. The TV series has scrupulously avoided mentioning sexuality.

One of the two major deaths at the end of the second season of the TV series is handled somewhat differently. This is because the TV series removed a subplot about a witch - just one subplot too many, it was a reasonable move. Ultimately, their interpretation is very accurate to the book.

Another classic Pullman quote: "There is a war coming, boy. The greatest war there ever was. Something like it happened before, and this time the right side must win. We've had nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history. It's time we started again, but properly this time...." He continues, talking about the knife of the title: "They had no idea that they'd made the one weapon in all the universes that could defeat the tyrant. The Authority. God." This is Jopari / Stanislaus Grumman / John Parry, a character we've come to respect and like, and he's speaking the truth of our main character's side of the war ...

Pullman has said in interviews that he was very surprised at how little push-back he got from the Catholic Church on these books, but as he said: Harry Potter was published at the same time and was taking all the flack. The Potter books just involve magic, they don't go after the church. But - while Pullman's books were definitely a success, Harry Potter was selling orders-of-magnitude more books. This is how it goes.

I'm not sure how much of this is things Pullman has said and how much my interpretation, but my reading is that he believes almost everything good, everything that makes it worth being human and alive, stems from "original sin" - the ability to think and choose on our own. I'm inclined to agree that knowledge is a good thing. I guess the question is ... do you? The biggest irony of this to me is that Pullman's books have to acknowledge the existence of God to attack him ...