On the 6th September 2017, the second book of this series, The Subtle Knife, celebrates its twentieth birthday so it only seems fitting to once more examine this excellent book.
The story picks up from the climatic cliff hanger of Northern Lights where Lyra watched her father, Lord Asriel, sacrifice her friend, Roger, in order to rip a hole open between two worlds. Along with her dæmon, Pantalaimon, Lyra steps from her world into another to discover what Dust is and why the adults seem so intent on having it destroyed.
The Subtle Knife follows Lyra’s exploits in this new world, with new ally Will who is destined to be the barer of a knife which can open and close doors to other worlds (the knife’s name being not-so-subtly the name of the book). Whilst most of the characters of the first book make a repeat appearance, there are also new faces including the mysterious shaman Grumman, the evil spirit-like creatures referred to as ‘Spectres’ and Oxford researcher Dr. Mary Malone.
Where Northern Lights seems to be a children’s book, Lyra is the street urchin who goes on an adventure to save her friends; it is in The Subtle Knife that Pullman begins to expand on the notions of maturing. This can be seen as the tone of the novel explores the idea that good and evil are not matters of black and white but rather there is blurring which lends itself to moral ambiguity.
Due to such religious content the book series as a whole was greeted with very mixed reviews. Despite The Subtle Knife winning several literary acclaims including the Parents’ Choice Gold Book Award, Book Links Best Book of the Year and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, the plans to adapt the film were shelved, following poor reception of 2007’s The Golden Compass.
As ‘The Subtle Knife’ turns the big 2-0 one cannot help but think on the lessons and traits of the book which have withstood the test of time. The second instalment of Pullman’s trilogy seems to be a book of contemplation; in Northern Lights adulthood and its complications are a distant thought and by the end of The Amber Spyglass.
However, it is in this book that Lyra starts to seriously consider the matter of growing up, perhaps metaphorically represented through the first real thought Lyra gives to Pan finally settling on a single form. One could even go so far as to say that in within this coming of age trilogy, The Subtle Knife is the most representative of Lyra Belacqua’s position: the awkward middle ground between childhood and adolescence.
Book descriptions are all too willing to label any book with a vaguely-teenaged protagonist as a ‘coming of age’ piece. However, this is the only accurate way to describe Philip Pullman’s phenomenal trilogy, His Dark Materials, as it follows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua who transitions from the innocence of childhood to a sexual awareness that marks the beginning of her adolescence.
His Dark Materials may contain controversial material but that has not stopped it being an overwhelming literary success; being named a top 100 novels of all time by Newsweek and one of the all-time greatest novels by Entertainment Weekly.