The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials #2)

thesubtleknifeThe world of Cittàgazze is an unsettling place: the silence, the empty streets, the threat of horrible death from the soul-eating Spectres, from which only children are safe. . .

Into this world comes Will, who has killed a man and is on the run. Almost at once he meets the strange, savage young girl called Lyra, and soon they discover that they haven’t met by accident. Their paths will take them to the mysterious Torre degli Angeli, where they must somehow acquire Cittàgazze’s most important secret: an object which people from many worlds would kill to possess.

But Will has his own task as well: he must find the father he has never known. Could it be that this quest, and Lyra’s, are part of the same larger one?

First published: 1997


After reading the first book in this series, Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass) in October last year, I picked up The Subtle Knife a few weeks ago when I was on the verge of a reading slump. I was busy with trying to solidify my dissertation topic and needed to read something fun that had nothing to do with any of it, which is where this book came in. I liked Northern Lights a lot, but I hadn’t expected to love The Subtle Knife as much as I did. It succesfully got me out of my almost-reading slump, that’s for sure!

What I loved most about the novel is the amazing world building. It started out pretty good in Northern Lights, with the world that is similar to ours but also very different, and the sequel really built on that. Lyra’s world doesn’t play a large role in this novel, although it is referred to quite often. Instead, we get two new worlds – one of which is our very own world. It was funny strange to see our world in this novel all of a sudden. It’s familiar, but somehow strange because of the context of all these different worlds people can just move around in.

The other is the world of Cittàgazze, which is magnificent, but terrifying. Will enters it through a sort of window by pure luck, and he finds an abandoned city. There is absolutely no one there, but it looks like people had been there quite recently (I would be terrified if I found a city like that). It turns out that its citizens had to flee for the Spectres, which are beings that basically suck the souls out of adults. They reminded me a lot of the dementors from Harry Potter, only these ones do not attack children. Terrifying.

The Subtle Knife introduces a new main character with Will. I think I liked him better than I did Lyra, who annoyed me a lot (but sort of in a good way?). Will was sweet and very brave, and I loved how he just wants to look out for his mother. He sometimes seemed a lot older than he actually was, but I’m still on the fence about whether or not I think this has to do with him having to grow up at a young age or unbelievable writing. I liked his search for his father, and how the reader actually gets much more information (if they pay attention) than Will himself. It made for an interesting reading experience. Oh, and I thought the whole subtle knife thing was really cool as well (and that’s all I’m going to say about that).

Lyra still had a role in this novel as well and I quite liked her as a sidekick. She gets in whole load of trouble again, of course, but that’s not surprising at all. Her gift with the alethiometer fascinates me and it once again added something to the story.

The rest of the characters are as interesting as these two main ones – you’ve got Mrs Coulter, who is absolutely terrifying and horrible, and then there’s the new Sir Charles, who is greedy and evil. I liked the witches in Northern Lights, but they became even more interesting to me in this novel. The Subtle Knife also introduces us to angels, which are fascinating creatures as well. This whole novel is just that: fascinating!

While this sequel ended on an amazing cliffhanger, I haven’t read on yet, but I definitely want to! These novels are unlike anything I’ve ever read, and I’d definitely recommend them to anyone who enjoys fantasy even the tiniest bit. They’re also a good read if you’re interested in debates on the role of religion in the world.

4 Loved It

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10 thoughts on “The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials #2)

  1. I think this one is my favorite of the trilogy, although I’ll admit I don’t remember the third one too well. It might be time for a re-read…

      • That happens a lot to me – I think it’s because I tend to re-read books in a series before reading the subsequent one. I know I’ve read The Golden Compass at least three times and The Subtle Knife at least twice, but I think I’ve only read The Amber Spyglass once.

  2. I read this trilogy as a teenager and was obsessed, it’s up there with Chronicles of Narnia as a childhood favourite series. Pullman’s other books (non-fantasy) are also really good 🙂

    • Can I tell you a secret? I’ve never read the Chronicles of Narnia! I think I read like one book years and years ago but I don’t remember anything about it… Thanks for the tip! Maybe I’ll check them out once I’ve finished with this trilogy. 🙂

  3. Jup jup jup, this book is so good! I also remember being surprised at a sequel being better than the first book, and I think that’s for the same reasons you gave. I remember also liking the third one a lot, but, to be fair, I read all of them in quick succession so I can’t exactly remember what part of the story was in which book.

    Great review!

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