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Review Revisited: Philip Pullman – The Subtle Knife

January 2, 2009

Re-Read. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (1997)
His Dark Materials, Book 2

I’m introducing a bit of a new feature here. I normally don’t review books I re-read, since 1) I don’t normally pay super-close attention to my re-reads to be able to write an informed review, and 2) if I’m re-reading something, I obviously really liked it the first time around, and I have problems coming up with much to say other than “SQUEE OMG I LURVE THIS BOOK!!!11!”.

But for books that are fairly recent re-reads – that is, books I read for the first time in 2006 or later – I have reviews that I wrote the first time around. So, I figured for these books, I could re-post my original review, re-evaluate whether or not I agreed with it, and add any new thoughts I had about things during the re-read.

Length: 352 pages

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Started: 22 March 2006 / 26 December 2008
Finished: 26 March 2006 / 28 December 2008

Summary: At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra follows her father across the bridge he’s created into another world. In the world of CitegazzĂ©, where she winds up, the cities are emptied of adults – they’ve all had their souls sucked away by the invisible Spectres. While there, she encounters Will, a boy from our own world. Will is on the run after accidentally killing a man who was harrassing his mother for secrets about his father, who disappeared when Will was very young. Lyra and Will must learn to trust each other, for while Lyra’s still on the trail of learning about Dust, and it’s clear that the war that Lord Asriel’s been planning is on the horizon, Lyra’s alethiometer tells her that she must do everything she can to help Will find his father.

Original Review: It certainly kept up the pacing of the first book, but it felt like largely what it was – the middle installment of a trilogy. Things are happening, sure, but it’s kind of the pause before the large battle. Also, the story jumps around a bit, switching to different storylines between chapters, and it loses a bit for that – the two main children are the strongest part of the book (Will is an excellent character, and an excellent counterpart to Lyra, the main character of the first book), and I was much more involved with them then with the peripheral characters that take up a lot of the time. So, it was good, and kept me wanting to listen more, but it had a vaguely perfunctory feeling to it, like these were just things that we had to get through so that we could get to the last book. 4 out of 5 stars.

On a Re-Read: I still mostly agree with everything I said the first time. Now that I know how the rest of the story plays out, I can see the point of the chapters spent with the peripheral characters (Lee Scorsby and Serafina Pekkala), and I did enjoy them more this time around, although I still felt like they were a distraction from the “real” story of Will and Lyra. Also, while a lot of important things happen in this book, Will’s quest to find his father isn’t a big enough thing to tie it all together into one cohesive story, which I think is what makes it feel so much like a middle book.

I was also able to put together some of the details a bit better on the re-read. The Subtle Knife is so different from The Golden Compass, structure-wise, that the first time through I was more focused on following the story, and didn’t catch all of the complexities of the world(s) that Pullman builds. Dust, dark matter, conscious thought, angels, etc. – it all made a lot more sense on this go-round, and really impressed me with its depth.

Oh, and finally: I still have a huge crush on Will Parry. Since my first read was not a read, but a listen, I thought my crush might have been due to the excellence of the actor reading Will’s part (and really, he is exceptionally affecting), but no, even in print, Will still pretty deftly worms his way into my heart. :)

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Bending Bookshelf
I know more of you have read this, but I couldn’t find any more reviews. If you’ve got one that I missed, leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Will tugged at his mother’s hand and said, “Come on, come on…”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2009 11:44 am

    I read this and The Golden Compass last summer. I had trouble relating to the fantasy aspects at first, but when I let my imagination go with it, I ended up enjoying it. I thought The Subtle Knife was better than The Golden Compass.

  2. January 2, 2009 2:10 pm

    I thought The Subtle Knife was better than The Golden Compass.

    bermudaonion – How so? The Subtle Knife was actually my least favorite of the trilogy, because it doesn’t really tell one story all the way through, and it feels like a lot of set-up for the third book.

  3. January 2, 2009 4:25 pm

    I love Will too! He was by far my favorite in the series (for some reason Lyra rubbed me wrong). I actually liked this one a bit better than the first as well, but I think that had more to do will Will than anything else :)

    Other than not liking the ending, I thought the third was the best in the series. This is a series I would like to re-read and enjoy (as opposed to reading to see what happens like I did the first time).

  4. January 2, 2009 5:04 pm

    I agree it feels like a middle book, but I loved it still. And the depth really is impressive. You’re making me want to re-read this series even more I already did, and I didn’t think that was possible :P

  5. January 3, 2009 12:34 pm

    Thank you so much for the review! At the age of 60 (well, 61), I’m reading The Golden Compass for the first time! I am totally enchanted! Now I must finish it to move on to this one!

  6. January 3, 2009 12:41 pm

    KT – Lyra can be a bit of a pill, but I think she and Will play off each other well. I’m enjoying my re-read, for sure.

    Nymeth – Don’t get me wrong, I still love this book, just not as much as I love the other two in the series. How could I not love a book that introduced me to Will?

    Linda – Never too late to read fantastic books! Why should we let the YA crowd have all the fun? I hope you continue to enjoy the series as much as I have!

  7. Anna permalink
    January 12, 2009 5:43 pm

    I used to like the his dark materials trilogy, but I re-read it recently and my opinion did a complete turn around. I couldn’t even make it through the Amber Spyglass I was so bored. Also I had a problem with the characters this time round, they all felt a little flat to me – Lyra was always sneaky but loyal (and to me her voice felt too childish for her age in The Subtle Knife), Will was always brooding and mature, Serafina was always wise. It just felt to me like they were following the traits they had been given and not really living. I did still enjoy all the ideas surrounding Dust, dark matter and parallel universes. Please don’t throw stuff at me, but I liked the movie of The Northern Lights better :P I thought the actors brought the characters to life in a way they didn’t in the book, particulary the girl playing Lyra.

  8. Matthew ( permalink
    January 13, 2012 10:37 am

    I really agree with your comments, the book is weakest when the narrative focus drifts onto the peripheral characters, and Will’s quest isn’t a strong enough thread to tie the whole plot together.

    Btw, I really like the way you’ve decided to deal with re-reads – it’s a problem I’ve been considering lately.

    My review: The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

  9. maci permalink
    February 24, 2012 5:38 pm

    i think the golden compass isn’t as good as the subtle knife because while reading the golden compass, I was bored.. But for the subtle knife I was hanging on to every word for dear life. I loved the cliffhanger endings on both books though because they left you hungry for more!!!!


  1. The Subtle Knife – Philip Pullman « A Book Blog. Period.

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