The Subtle Knife is the second book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… trilogy. Picking up events loosely where Northern Lights/The Golden Compass left off, the novel expands upon the first to include a variety of other worlds. It also focuses on a new pillar in the series: the boy Will. While style and theme remain consistent with the first book, readers will find whole new worlds and characters to enjoy.
The Subtle Knife opens with Lyra, having followed Lord Asriel into the gateway he created by killing Roger, entering a place called Citigazze. Citigazze a strange and eerie city in ruins, Lyra soon stumbles upon a young boy her age named Will Parry. Will, a stranger to the world as well, is seeking a way back to his own world, in addition to his long-lost father. Husks of human bodies laying about the desolate city, Will and Lyra come upon strange creatures called spectres and are immediately chased, fleeing for their lives. Coming into the possession of a strange, ultra-sharp knife in the process, the duo soon learn that many more places exist than just Aurora, Citigazze, and Will’s Earth, a father lost among them.
Where Northern Lights was confined to Aurora, The Subtle Knife expands His Dark Materials… into a multiverse. A variety of places traversed, Will and Lyra have rollicking adventures avoiding the spectres and seeking out Will’s father, the knife a powerful tool, quite literally opening new doors. Likewise, where Northern Lights developed Lyra’s character, The Subtle Knife’s focus is to develop Will’s. Each character like a pillar, it isn’t until the third and final book, The Amber Spyglass, that Pullman bridges the main characters’ stories and gives them the single aim of solving the mystery of Dust, Dark Matter, Shadows, and all manner of the enigmatic intangible between.
In the end, The Subtle Knife goes a long way toward expanding Pullman’s world and defining the vision he set out to put into words. Not only is the concept of multiverse added, but another main character joins the already variegated cast. If readers think of The Subtle Knife as a separate (yet integral) story in support of the concluding volume rather than a linear continuation of Northern Lights, their understanding of the series as a whole will benefit. Will and Lyra playing equal parts in the finale, Pullman simply decided to isolate their narratives rather than combine them chronologically. Readers who enjoyed the first will find no dip in quality in the second. Be warned that The Subtle Knife, like Northern Lights, also has a touch of a cliffhanger ending. Several internal story arcs are resolved, but the fate of certain characters is left to the next volume.