From now on my reviews will be divided into two sections. The first will be short and spoiler-free for those deciding whether to read the book, and the second will be a longer exploration of the book geared towards those who don’t mind spoilers.
Should You Read It?
This series is thoroughly atheistic, designed to be an answer to Lewis’s Narnia. It attempts to be a compelling apologetic, and it certainly is an incredibly entertaining work. If you have a sharp mind and a firm faith, this is an excellent place to learn about telling good stories with a worldview. However, this is not something to raise your kids on. By itself it’s not persuasive, but this is the sort of stuff that can be poisonous over the long haul. Tread carefully.
If You Have Read It
This book is fascinating. Pullman crams it with meaning and commentary on life. But before we get to that, can I just point out that he has some serious problems with point of view? In the first book that was fine, because Lyra was really the only one who did things. Here, however, we’ve got a ton more heads running around and Pullman is intent on jumping through them all. There are ways of pulling it off, but he barely takes a breath while switching POV’s. It’s downright disorienting. I mean, you can easily read past it, but it is annoying. Anyhow, on to the fun stuff.
Lyra and Will
Right off the bat we have a new protagonist. Will Parry is far more competent than Lyra, and Lyra figures this out quick. She falls for him, and she falls hard. It’s actually rather frightening.
Don’t get me wrong, Lyra needed to be humble and look up to somebody. When she realized that Will’s Oxford was so unlike her own, that was something I’d waited a long time for. She had to rely on someone else to be smarter than her, to take care of her, and she had to admit that she simply couldn’t handle things. Sure, she’d had doubts before, but she was nauseatingly arrogant with all the other characters.
But from that point on, the contrast becomes enormous. At every available opportunity Lyra becomes more childish and Will is shown to be more competent. A crisis comes and she rages, distraught, while he calmly considers the situation. Another crisis occurs, and a moment later Lyra chatters happily while Will’s wound continues bleeding and he struggles to keep moving. She stops using the alethiometer on her own, letting Will call the shots. She apologizes repeatedly for the slightest thing, and repeatedly he accepts. She is mystified by the world, and he explains it to her. I am hard-pressed to think of a single incident in the book where this trend is not followed.
It’s not the degree of devotion and submission from Lyra towards Will which is jarring. Plenty more patriarchal fundamentalists would paint a relationship this way. But an atheist preaching equality and the evils of submission? That’s startling, especially after Lyra is made so much of in the first book. By the end of The Subtle Knife, it’s hard to take her seriously as a sidekick, much less as an independent protagonist.
Kids Are Evil
One of the things Will explains to Lyra is the nature of human cruelty. There is a thread spanning most of the middle of the book involving unwatched children who run about tormenting cats, each other, and eventually Will and Lyra. Lyra is shocked by this, unable to understand how children could be so mean. Like many people today, she had imagined children as a sort of noble savage, incapable of real evil.
Surprisingly, Pullman through Will insists that this is not the case. Children are violently hateful towards anything they find strange or frightening, or anything that harms them. The only thing that keeps them from murder is sheer inability. While I agree with the idea, lover of Augustine that I am, it is surprising coming from the guy who associates enlightenment and original sin, via Dust, with puberty. But Pullman is complex, and sometimes contradictory.
The way Pullman fuses magic and science is fantastic. Somehow he removes the spiritual realm and invests infinitesimally small particles with intelligence. Because these particles are everywhere, permeating the universe like the Force, they can be provoked into acting by apparently magical rites or by complex scientific procedures.
It’s not just the explanation, either. This whole series, but especially this book, evokes the same sense of wonder and mystery with particle physics that we ordinarily associate with enchantment. Then he turns around and treats spells with the same empirical and matter-of-fact manner with which he might treat a scientific experiment. People should do this more often.
As Film Crit Hulk is fond of pointing out, the ending is the conceit. With this book, no kidding. Pullman lays out his whole agenda in no uncertain terms. In fact, it was so starkly revealed the first time I read it that I was sure there was still a twist to come, that he couldn’t be serious. I was wrong, so very wrong. But that is a story for later. For now, we plow onward through the last bits of The Subtle Knife.
Doctor Malone and the Rebel Angels
When Lyra finds someone in Will’s Oxford to help her, it is an apostate nun-turned-physicist named Dr. Mary Malone. She is a rather flustered individual, in a bit of an airheaded and devoutly scientific sort of way. Honestly, I thought her portrayal was goofy, but she goes interesting places.
One of the places she goes is into a direct conversation with Dust. It turns out these intelligent particles have organized themselves into vast structures we know as angels. These angels, who guide Lyra via the golden compass and now Dr. Malone through this machine (and later through I Ching), are rebel angels. They interfered in evolution, turning humanity into a conduit for Dust as an act of revenge against God. And Doctor Malone is going to “play the serpent” for them.
In the last part of the book we are tugged along in the asking of two questions: who is Lyra, and what is Aesahaettr?
Aesaheattr, it turns out, is the titular knife. Not only can it cut open portals between worlds, it can kill angelic beings. Which, apparently, includes God. In fact, it seems the only reason the Rebels lost the last war was that they did not possess such a weapon. Now they have that chance.
As time goes on, we also discover that Lyra is the next Eve. There are now two stories running on parallel tracks: the assassination of God and the reenactment of the Fall.
It’s at this point that continuing the series seems ghoulish and downright diabolical. Quite frankly, this book is satanic. It makes God into the enemy and devils into heroes. At least, that is Pullman’s intention.
But this is not something that ought to be too shocking or inherently unfamiliar. In reality there are only two ways of telling a story– on God’s side or Satan’s. In most books, this is veiled and obscured. Paganism hides at the heart of the parable and goes unnoticed. Here it is shockingly and openly blasphemous, but its very explicitness robs it of its teeth. Pullman is honest about the story he is telling, so we can honestly evaluate it. Therefore, onward.
John Parry’s Speech
Will’s missing father–John Parry/Jopari/Dr. Grumman– sums things up as he gives his son his mission in the very last chapter. All of history has been a war between the Authority and the Rebels. Because the Rebels lost the first engagement, there has been “nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history.” It is a battle between “human freedom,” knowing more, being wiser, being stronger on the one side, and obedience, humility, and submission on the other. And this time the Rebels must win.
But John Parry’s speech falls flat. It is itself a glorious piece of propaganda, and not one page later he betrays a man who gave his life for Parry, Lyra, and whatever cause they were defending. Every adult on the Rebel side is at least as cruel as the Church they fight. Until now we have not seen the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Church has been little more than shadows. But these men, those who fight them, are despicable. John Parry stands witness against his own cause.
All Parents Fail
In Pullman’s world, it is dangerous to be a parent.The moment Will recognizes this shaman as his estranged father, the man is struck down by a scorned lover. Our beloved Lee Scoresby, in trying to replace the awful Asriel, dies for Lyra. Nor is it only the fathers. Lyra’s mother is a horrible person, and Will’s is crippled and dependent, unable to be there for him even if she would like to do so. This is a world of orphans, a world where reality is harsh and growing up means being alone. And, in the end, like every other father, God must be proved senile, cruel, or dead.
But this is only Pullman’s negative case. The pain and angst is later replaced with an effort to love in a world without God. I pushed on, hoping to learn how he could present a positive worldview, something that goes beyond the hopeless denial of atheism. As an artist, or an apologist, such an effort is valuable. If you’ve come this far, I urge you to soldier on and see where it goes.