The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
The Subtle Knife is the second book in the acclaimed fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials.
In the end of the first book, young Lyra Belacqua has just crossed into another universe to find the secret to Dust. The second book begins in this other universe, in an England that resembles our reality. A 12 year-old boy named Will Parry takes care of his mentally unstable mother, for his father, John Parry, disappeared several years earlier. He accidentally kills a man who had attempted to steal his father’s letters from Will’s house. With the guilty knowledge of having murdered someone, Will puts his mother in someone else’s care and leaves home to find his father.
Unexpectedly, he sees a neatly cut window in empty space that leads into another world, and steps into it. There, he and Lyra meet, and through an uneasy beginning of an alliance, they journey together through the deteriorating city of Citagazze. The only inhabitants are children, and the two learn that Specters, ghostlike figures that are invisible and harmless to children, wander the city in search of adults, whose souls they devour.
The question of Dust grows ever greater they journey back to Will’s world. Will learns his father had headed north to research it, and Lyra asks a scientist named Mary Malone more about the mysterious dark matter. Malone says that Dust is conscious and can communicate with people, and furthermore it is the entity that gives Lyra answers through the alethiometer.
A conniving wealthy old man named Sir Charles Latrom steals the alethiometer from Lyra and offers this ransom: give him a special knife from Citagazze, and he would return the alethiometer. The two children go back to Citagazze and climb a tower where an older teenager has the knife. Will fights him for it and becomes the bearer of the knife. With it, he is able to cut through the very matter that holds the universe together, and in this way, he can cut windows to other worlds. They steal the alethiometer back from Sir Charles, who is collaborating with Mrs. Coulter, and they return once again to Citagazze.
Meanwhile, the story turns to a shaman named Stanislaus Grumman, an explorer in the north who has studied Dust extensively. We learn that Stanislaus Grumman is but an alias for the man’s true name, John Parry. Will’s father lost his way while journeying through worlds, and settled for investigating Dust while his physical condition slowly worsened due to staying away from his home world too long. Will encounters his father by chance, and while neither realizes their relationship, the older man tells him that Will, like Lyra, is essential to the fate of the universe.
When John lights a match, they both realize instantly that they are father and son, but at that moment John is killed by a witch whose love he spurned.
Time races against Lyra and Will as Mrs. Coulter is also looking for the secret of Dust, torturing witches in order to find out the truth of the witches’ prophecy about Lyra. Will is taken away by two angels who say they will lead him to Lord Asriel.
The book ends here, leaving the reader to ponder questions of philosophy, theology, and science. The issues Pullman raises are a continuance of the ones in the Golden Compass, concerning religious doctrine, the human essence, the role of science in the world and scientific ethics, etc.
Perhaps the most striking matter in this book is the Specters. What are they exactly? Pullman presents them as eerie, zombie-like wraiths that seek out adults and feed on their consciousness until their victims are nothing but blank-faced statues. Yet they do not bother children at all. This ties in with the human essence question. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a child versus an adult, and when exactly does a child cross over the line to adulthood? Religious doctrine is also at play. The Bible seems to claim there is someessential difference between children and adults, the former filled with innocence, the latter responsible for the weight of his sins. Perhaps this is related to the Specters’ targeting of adults.
Another interesting point that enters only in the last part of the book is the question of angels. What are they exactly? Pullman’s take on them seems much different than the winged, white-robed beings traditionally seen as angels.
And lastly, what is this knife and what does it represent? How can it cut through the very fabric of space-time? Somehow, all of these questions are related to the identity of Dust. The answers and more revelations emerge in the final book of the series, The Amber Spyglass.