Reading by Ear: The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
read by the author and a full cast

I remember the first chapter of The Subtle Knife pretty well. I have a sneaking suspicion it was attached to the copy of The Golden Compass I was handed as a child, although it’s not in the editions I actually own. In any case, while I distinctly remember getting around to The Amber Spyglass in early high school, I think I did read The Subtle Knife in middle school, as the cover is familiar to me in an odd way. But the most likely thing is that I started, abandoned it, and actually read it in early high school when I revisited the entire series. My memory, man—sometimes it’s like solving a puzzle.

The Subtle Knife introduces us to Will Parry, a young boy from our world. After accidentally murdering a man out to steal his father’s personal papers from his mentally ill mother, Will tries to escape. When he sees what looks like a window between worlds, he takes it, and finds himself in Cittàgazze, a strange, empty city by the sea populated only by children. There, Will meets Lyra, and the two fall in together, unaware of the vast, heavy destinies waiting for them and the true nature of the forces out to get them.

The most interesting thing about The Subtle Knife is the way actually imitates The Golden Compass. In both, we have a child, a powerful instrument, a father the child is trying to get to, and a death that is a betrayal. Obviously, all the different variables involved in these similar milestones are different, but that’s the point. On the one hand, we have Lyra, who only plays by the rules when she wants to, versus Will, who plays by the rules at all times, petrified of what a lapse in caution could bring down upon his family. At one point, the narrative points out that Will has no idea what being protected is like, as he’s been forced to protect his mother his entire life. Everyone Lyra respects and loves can take care of themselves—she even believes Roger, brutally murdered at the end of The Golden Compass, perfectly capable of pulling off what she did to save him. While the narrative doesn’t explicitly present them as such, they’re foils for each other, playing off each other to the other’s advantage, which foreshadows their relationship in The Amber Spyglass.

I cling to that, a bit, because for me, Will is just alright as a character. He gets quite better after his betrayal, when his Determinator instincts kick in, but for the most part, I yearned for Lyra, interesting, ferocious, and haughty Lyra. We do get plenty of her, but it’s a short novel and the focus is rather… scattered. Instead of focusing solely on Lyra and Lyra’s story, as he was able to in The Golden Compass, Pullman pulls back to look at Serafina Pekkala and the witches, Lee Scoresby (oh my Lord, Lee!), Mary Malone (a nun turned atheist scientist who studies Dust), and, of course, Will. While I enjoyed this greater scope (especially the opportunity to look at Pullman’s world through adult eyes rather than child eyes), it does make the narrative feel a little runny. While Will and Lyra are on a quest to find Will’s father, the structure is just looser here, even though this is the shortest novel in the trilogy.

However, it’s also here that Pullman introduces one of the most important elements in the trilogy that’s more or less absent in The Golden Compass—the anti-organized religion stance. (Well, while Lord Asriel mentions it, he’s not particularly specific about it.) At one point, Ruta Skadi, a witch queen, returns to Serafina Pekkala and tells her of the atrocities committed against witches in all the worlds, all in the name of the Authority, and tells them of his plan to wage war against Heaven itself. Rebel angels (one of Pullman’s most beautiful creations) calmly and elegant prepare for battle. Pullman is very upfront about it, and I quite enjoyed it. We’ll see how it is once we get to The Amber Spyglass. (The Subtle Knife is so thin that a lot of events that happened in The Amber Spyglass I thought happened here, or vice versa.)

The audio production remains stellar, save for the music. (What, me hate the music in an audiobook production? Quelle surprise!) It’s just corny and wildly inappropriate at points, especially when Pullman deliberately ends a chapter on a somber, clear note. Yurgh. Steven Webb does a fine job as Will; his voice is rough and still believably young. I was also quite taken with Julian Glover as Stanislaus Grumman, who gave the part dignity, wry humor, and gravity. It’s really fantastic work. If you want to listen to the books, seek these productions out.

Bottom line: While The Subtle Knife is an interesting riff on The Golden Compass’ structure, its own is a bit loose, as Pullman widens his scope to put the players in play for the epic conclusion, The Amber Spyglass. A necessity to get through the series, but I can see myself skipping it on future rereads.

I rented this audiobook from the library.

4 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: The Subtle Knife

  1. I hear you on the way more scattered structure. It doesn’t bother me quite so much nowadays when I re-read the series, since I’ve got a better idea of how all of the pieces fit together, but my first time through, I was very much “I don’t care about the witches! Get back to Will and Lyra!”

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Will, though. I think part of it was that the first time I encountered these books was as an adult, and via the audio production, and the actor(s) they have playing Will are just so good, and managed to break my heart on his behalf over and over again.

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