Book review

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (1997)

There's a story in the Bible, in the book of Revelation, right at the very end of all things, which tells of a great war in heaven between God and the rebel angels who were led by the Devil. The Devil and his rebel angels were defeated and cast out into the earth. But after a thousand years they were to be loosed from their prison and they would gather for another battle. This time there would be so many under the Devil's command that their number would be like the sand of the sea.

What a powerful story! What if ...

That story is one of the building blocks of The Subtle Knife which Philip Pullman draws on, as well as other satisfying notions like the possibility of parallel universes, to produce a story of extraordinary depth and power.

Here we catch up with Lyra, who was left at the end of Northern Lights crossing the bridge through the aurora into a different world. Her purpose was to follow after her father, Lord Asriel, and to find out more about Dust which seemed to be the cause of such evil research in her own world. She crosses into a world called Cittagazze, a ghastly place occupied by spectres who feed on the souls of adults. Gangs of spectre-orphans roam the deserted streets. I'm not quite sure how Lyra would have continued her search for the truth about Dust if she had not met Will.

Will comes from our world. He is about the same age as Lyra and has lost his father too. Will's father was an explorer and disappeared when Will was a baby. He had been searching in the arctic for a portal to another world when he was lost. But it seems that not only Will is interested in finding his father. Grim men come searching Will's house. They are searching for papers which relate to the explorer's work, but in attempting to escape from them Will accidentally kills one of the men. Under cover of darkness Will gets away and, right there on the Oxford ring-road, discovers a portal through to Cittagazze. Here he thinks he has found the perfect place to hide, but actually his troubles are only just beginning.

The two children try to follow their own paths, but Lyra's alethiometer insists that she should bend all her purpose towards helping Will to find his father. Are the purposes of the two children, from two different worlds, linked somehow?

Meanwhile, where is Lord Asriel and what is he doing? We know where Mrs Coulter is and what she is doing. But who are the goodies and who are the baddies in this extraordinary story? If Mrs Coulter represents the power of the church, does that mean Lord Asriel is on the side of evil? Is he really gathering his armies to do battle against God himself? Are God and the church on the same side?

This is an absorbing, breathtaking book, absolutely crammed with ideas. There are so many things to think about, you couldn't fail to have your attention grabbed by something. For instance, I'm still having to think about parallel universes. Lyra says:

' ... No one can count how many worlds there are, all in the same space, but no one could get from one to another before my father made this bridge.'

Now, how can they all be in the same space? Worlds are made up of matter. Where is all that other matter? The only way I can come to terms with millions of other worlds is by accepting that there are millions of other people and each person perceives a different world, but I don't think that is what Lyra meant. On the other hand, when Lyra visits the museum in Will's modern Oxford she sees the very same sledge that she had been carried on when she was kidnapped by the Samoyed hunters:

And even that rope had frayed and been re-knotted in precisely the same spot, and she knew it intimately, having been tied up in that very sledge for several agonizing hours ... What were these mysteries? Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others?

I haven't quite got to the bottom of all the complexities of this book. The answer must be in the Dust!

Earnestly recommended.

What can I read next?

This book is the second of a trilogy. You must read them in order:

There is a new fantasy trilogy, in a historical setting, written by Kevin Crossley-Holland, which I think might interest you:

Or you could have a look at this new fantasy by Kate Thompson:

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