When I first read Northern Lights two years ago, I somehow missed the beauty and captivating wonder within these pages. In my review a few days ago, I wrote that I was incredibly grateful I decided to reread the series, allowing the opportunity to discover the magic that is the His Dark Materials series. What I didn’t think could be possible was that The Subtle Knife would increase this feeling so significantly. My memory of this book in the overall series was that I had not particularly enjoyed it, but it has become my absolute favourite this time around.
Tirelessly they flew on and on, and tirelessly she kept pace. She felt a fierce joy possessing her, that she could command these immortal presences. And she rejoiced in her blood and flesh, in the rough pine bark she felt next to her skin, in the beat of her heart and the life of all her senses, and in the hunger she was feeling now, and in the presence of her sweet-voiced bluethroat dæmon, and in the earth below her and the lives of every creature, plant and animal both; and she delighted in being of the same substance as them, and in knowing that when she died her flesh would nourish other lives as they had nourished her.
The introduction of new characters and new worlds in The Subtle Knife is done with an expert touch. Pullman manages to include an insane amount of exposition in an incredibly natural way. There is so much information about Dust, travelling between worlds, Lyra’s prophecy, the Authority, and, well, everything, but it never distracts from the story. And it’s such a good story.
The fact was that where Will was concerned, she was developing a new kind of sense, as if he were simply more in focus than anyone she’d known before. Everything about him was clear and close and immediate.
Will’s story is heartbreaking; he’s so strong and independent for such terrible reasons. He knows how to fend for himself and take care of others, which, luckily, is exactly what Lyra needs. Lyra is outstanding if you need to run in blindly and lie your way into (or out of) something, but when it comes to planning and subtlety (and competence), you want Will on your side. They complement each other perfectly, and despite their differences, they certainly have similarities. They both have terrible histories stemming from their parents, and neither seems to have the possibility of a happy ending in sight.
She tiptoed to the window. In the glow from the streetlight she carefully set the hands of the alethiometer, and relaxed her mind into the shape of a question. The needle began to sweep around the dial in a series of pauses and swings almost too fast to watch.
She had asked: What is he? A friend or an enemy?
The alethiometer answered: He is a murderer.
When she saw the answer, she relaxed at once. He could find food, and show her how to reach Oxford, and those were powers that were useful, but he might still have been untrustworthy or cowardly. A murderer was a worthy companion. She felt as safe with him as she’d felt with Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear.
As a retelling of a pretty essential biblical story, The Subtle Knife stays true to the history of religion with a lot of sadness and sacrifice. There are so many adults and organisations believing so strongly in their vision or faith that they are willing to force their beliefs on the rest of the world at any cost.
"There are two great powers," the man said, "and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit."
I’ve forgotten most of what happens in The Amber Spyglass, but I remember it being fairly dense. Then again, I didn’t remember liking Northern Lights and especially The Subtle Knife, which seems crazy to me at this point. I have thoroughly enjoyed rereading this series so far, and it’s a nice reminder that not all first impressions are accurate.
She felt a nausea of the soul, a hideous and sickening despair, a melancholy weariness so profound that she was going to die of it. Her last conscious thought was disgust at life; her senses had lied to her. The world was not made of energy and delight but of foulness, betrayal, and lassitude. Living was hateful, and death was no better, and from end to end of the universe this was the first and last and only truth.