Pullman significantly expands the geography and mythology of his world(s) with The Subtle Knife
, introducing imaginative new landscapes, peoples and creatures to create a rich tapestry and layered story that would make Joseph Campbell proud.
Continuing her quest to find out what "Dust" is and find and stop Asriel to get justice for poor Roger's sacrifice at the end of book one, Lyra finds herself jutting back and forth between two brand new worlds, one that resembles our own, from which her new companion Will is running, and another that, at first glance, would appear to be a paradise for children - a world almost completely free of adults. Beneath a temperate and hedonistic paradise lies a much darker secret: the secret of where exactly the adults have gone, which is ultimately tied to the unravelling reality around them and the "biblical" war to end all wars that is coming.
I was surprised to see a return to some blatantly Christian mythology in the key components of the narrative, particularly with the twist toward the end of the book. After spending most of the first book trying to establish a scientific and magical context separate from dogma, this book tries to place the biblical story of Eden and Genesis in general in a more "scientific" context and tries to add a multiverse to address theological questions that humans have drummed up about the limited narrative of creation present in biblical canon. In keeping with this revisionism, The Subtle Knife
introduces "angels," a more explicit "creator" now formally called the Authority, and men with serpent familiars all taking part in a larger war to end the unfinished one that Lucifer started in the previous age. Again, for those with a religious education in the West, the analogies Pullman invokes are not subtle. For me, at least, the transformation of the story from a magical steampunkish quest to creationist-revelationist revisionism isn't necessarily a bad one. I can, however, see how some people who are more squeamish about the insertion of religious doctrine into their epic fantasy might be put-off by the sudden change of direction. The original narrative had a lot going for it, and one can imagine several secular solutions to the plotting without the invocation of deity. This volume makes it very clear that Pullman's intention is to recast our conception of creation and rationalize religious beliefs that he grew up with so that some vestige of those old myths can be held on to. It's a risky move. On the one hand, people with grounding in Christianity or who have evolved to the agnostic midpoint between utter atheism and fundamentalist fervor might find the narrative psychologically comforting as well as entertaining. Alternately, it could turn people off if they feel like this is just another attempt to cram religion down their throats. Again, personally, the bastardization of science that happens in this book wasn't really a big problem for me. If I'm going to accept witches flying on cloud pines in clear violation of Newton's third law, then do the other alterations really matter?
What demoted this book for me was its refocusing of characters. This time around Lyra shares the stage with Will, which ordinarily would be fine, but as the novel progressed there was a clear passing of the baton. I like Will. He's self-sacrificing and self-effacing, independent and determined. What disappoints me is that this series had an opportunity to create and mold a strong female lead for girls to read who was fiercely independent, intelligent and utterly capable of making her way in a world of adults, dominated by authority figures (male and religious) and filled with danger on her own. Introducing Will would still work for me, if they didn't change that. The Subtle Knife
, however, decides that the young man is going to be the strong one. Lyra's problem-solving wit withers in the presence of her new companion, the warrior and at times she appears utterly daft. It's made explicitly clear in the dialogue and in Lyra's own internal monologues that she's lost and only going to wind up in trouble without Will. Her new quest is to be subservient to his because he's
the important one with things to do. If there was no other way to tell the story, so be it, but like the introduction of religious mythology, I could name a couple of other ways to plot this without Lyra becoming the doting and ditzy female companion character, helpless and in need of rescuing by her powerful and smart friend. And the prophecy concerning Lyra? Finally revealed: She's to be the new Eve. The mother of the next generation of humanity after the second fall. Sooooooo... she's important because she gets to be the new breeding cow of humanity? You blew it with that one in my book Pullman.
Still, there's a lot to like. The mysteries are engaging and its interesting to see where Pullman goes in his use of science as a magic tool to wave away unexplained phenomena under a veneer of legitimacy. As I mentioned in The Golden Compass
, Pullman makes pretty extensive use of the "advanced science and technology appearing as magic" trope. It's just a shame that this isn't what it could have been. An epic multi-universe fantasy quest filled with mythic allegory and a strong female lead that saves all of existence. Or at least, that's not the way it appears it's going to be as of the end of this book...