The Subtle Knife

by Philip Pullman

If reading fantasy novels that made you think counted as using exercise equipment I would be incredibly buff, because this week, I finished The Subtle Knife, the second novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy that opened with The Golden Compass.

In this installment of Lyra’s story, which opens in “our” version of Earth rather than hers, we meet young Will Parry, son of a missing adventurer and a mother who has clearly had a grief-induced nervous breakdown. Will accidentally finds a doorway to another world, which just happens to be the same world Lyra arrives on following the end of the first book. They eventually join forces, helped along the way by Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrneson (the armored bear king), witches, angels, and human scientists, as they must also outwit not only Lyra’s mother (Mrs. Coulter) but her father the previously-assumed-to-be-a-white-hat Lord Asriel.

While this is very much a middle novel, setting up relationships and feeding us information to prepare us for book three (which I also finished this week), it was still a satisfying read. Lyra and Will both develop from precocious kids into complex characters, and learn to use their innate skills (like lying and storytelling, or the art of not being noticed) to help their cause.

There is, of course, much talk about Dust, or elementary particles, of Shadows and Spectres and Angels, but it is in no way smarmy or pandering. These books may technically be targeted to young adults, but there’s a reason they’re found in the general sci fi/fantasy section of most bookstores.