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Fri, Jan. 13th, 2006, 03:41 pm
Reading List: The Subtle Knife

Read: The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman.

The second book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, unfortunately, does not quite live up to the promises of the first. Not that it’s bad, by any means! Pullman’s worst work is better than the best efforts of most other fantasy writers! But while The Golden Compass was a nearly perfect work of fiction, The Subtle Knife develops character and structural problems which make it only very, very, very, very good.

The first concern I had with the book is simply that people do a lot more telling, and a lot less showing. While The Golden Compass did a great job of incorporating its larger concerns into immediate plot, and of breaking up any necessary exposition, The Subtle Knife has a lot of characters explaining things to one another as opposed to actually doing things. I think this is often a middle-book problem, and considering the crazy action that Pullman packs into the last volume of the trilogy, it’s clear that Pullman hasn’t lost his touch with story. I think he just had to get from point A to point B, and occasionally decided to go the expository route.

Second, I don’t like Will Parry all that much. I hate to say it, as I know he’s the Chosen Young Man With A Destiny Too, but I find him a bit bland for the role he’s got to bear. Really, I resent every minute of the story that we’re not with Lyra (or Lee Scoresby, or Iorek Byrnison, but they rarely gain central focus). Will would make a great main character for any other story, pretty much, but by comparison with Lyra he seems a bit mundane. I know that’s an intentional choice by Pullman, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it!

On the other hand, the book has some unforgettable scenes, like Lyra and Will rescuing the alethiometer after it’s been stolen, and pretty much everything that happens in the deserted city of Cittagaze, and Lee Scoresby fighting the Imperial soldiers. Plus, new allies and villains are introduced - the terrifying Specters, who suck out the soul of adults but can’t touch children, and barely-visible ranks of angels, and an ex-nun-turned-theoretical-physicist, and a whole army of witches (yay!). Really, from any other author this would be an extraordinary work. For Pullman, though, it’s the weakest of the series. Read it, though, because the next book is a true and wonderful treat . . . .