The second installment of Philip Pullman's extraordinary metaphysical adventure trilogy turns the story in a distinctly darker and more frightening direction, and yet I wouldn't claim for a minute that perhaps this "young adult" series might not be as appropriate for its presumed adolescent target audience as Pullman wants it to be. While most escapist fantasy is ultimately reassuring and safe when all is said and done, Pullman is unafraid to challenge his young readers to think. Moral ambivalence, the duality of human nature, duty and responsibility, everything that is disconcerting and downright messy about life is given center stage in these books. No, good does not always win the day, and if it does, it's often through gut-wrenching sacrifice. Despite some scenes of violence that perhaps cannot avoid criticisms of excess, The Subtle Knife continues the adventures of Lyra Belacqua in unexpected and often astonishing ways.
Those of you who have not read the first book might want to avoid reading this review, as there may, of course, be spoilers. The second novel introduces us to 12-year-old Will Parry, an inhabitant of England in our Earth (The Golden Compass was set in an alternate Earth). Will and his mentally ill mother are being pursued by ominous government types over his father's disappearance, about which Will, who was barely a baby at the time, knows little. The disappearance took place during an Arctic expedition, the purpose of which is shrouded in mystery and, of course, is thus of great interest to the government.
As Will is fleeing from said baddies, one of whom he has accidentally killed by knocking down a flight of stairs, he quite accidentally comes upon a portal leading from this world to a mysterious counter-Earth called Cittàgazze. In a strangely deserted city by the sea, he encounters Lyra, who has come to this world from her own alternate Earth through the portal created by Lord Asriel at the first book's climax. Lyra isn't sure why she's here or what she means to do, but she's sure it has a lot to do with Dust, that strange cosmic particle that seems to have everyone in her world in an uproar. Also, Lyra's aliethiometer, the golden compass that can answer any question, tells her that her duty is now to help Will find his father at all costs.
Looking for clues, Will and Lyra travel freely between Cittàgazze and his (our) Earth using the portal Will found, which is literally a rip in the fabric of space itself. In our world, Lyra encounters a scientist doing research into dark matter, which we find is the same stuff that Lyra's people call Dust. She also manages to run afoul of a slimy and manipulative aristocrat who steals the aliethiometer (which he appears to know all about) and demands, in return, that Will and Lyra travel back to Cittàgazze and steal for him an artifact known as the subtle knife, a weapon of unimposing appearance but awe-inspiring power.
Pullman's impressive plot defies easy summarization and ticks along like clockwork, though in its early stages Pullman appears to be moving it forward artificially through some convenient coincidences. Pullman realizes this and amusingly deflects criticism by inserting a scene in which Will and Lyra ponder the remarkable chance occurences that have brought them to their current predicament. It's a cheat, but what the hell. Where the book really earns its stripes is in its stunning momentum (it starts in fourth gear and almost never downshifts), its breathless action scenes, and in its moral and philosophical depths, which it explores without a shred of didacticism. Pullman addresses the importance of duty within the context of a story about adolescents who still lack the maturity to understand it, and who are forced by trials and circumstances to learn the hard way. Nothing is won easily here, much is lost, and painful sacrifice is often the price.
As entertainment, as a sheer adrenalizing thrill ride, The Subtle Knife outperforms most of today's fantasy novels like a muscle car in a race against Pintos. The final two chapters of this novel, towards which Pullman's meticulous plotting has inexorably been building, have more visceral power than most entire books. You will finish this novel literally winded! I'm still a bit disturbed by the level of violence in some scenes, particularly that involving children. In one chapter, Will and Lyra are set upon by a gang of enraged orphan children, some of whom are armed with guns. In 1997, that scene might not have been quite so disturbing, but in the post-Columbine world kids shooting at each other is something that might evoke understandable distaste.
But in the end, I was still floored by the scope and originality of this fantasy. In a crowd of poseurs, this series has a real epic quality, and Pullman doesn't seem to need 800 pages to get his story told (see how easy it can be?). Pullman wraps up on an excruciating cliffhanger, which must have driven his fans apoplectic, considering that the third novel did not appear until 2000. But it leaves you with confidence that His Dark Materials could turn out to be a modern masterwork.