After my disappointment with Butlerian Jihad, I decided I really had to go with a sure thing this week. So I picked up Philip Pullman’s “The Subtle Knife,” and I have not been disappointed at all. I love reading books with depth and layers. I love complicated yet realistic characters, and Pullman’s characters definitely fit the bill. When I read “The Golden Compass,” I was startled by how well Pullman managed to capture the true nature of childhood. Kids are not simple, happy creatures, but vicious and cunning little savages. Really! Pullman talked about how the children of Oxford college would form tribes and go to war with each other. This is something I recall doing as a child, and it’s both delightful and frightening to see that particular aspect of my young life captured on the page.
The Subtle Knife keeps up in the same vein, following the adventures of Lyra Silvertongue and a new friend, Will. While the entire “His Dark Materials” series is billed as children’s books, I have to wonder what age ranged the publisher (Yearling) is thinking of. The main characters are children, but the contents of the book are far from childish. The first three chapters include a boy taking care of his schizophrenic mother, a violent death, a torture scene, and a nightmare about a decapitated head. Not suitable fare for my six-year old, I think. She’d probably have nightmares. In fact, it’s all scary enough to keep me on the edge of my seat, but I love it and I’ll be happy to hand over my copies to Princess when she reaches ten and see how she enjoys them. At six though, she’s still a little too young.
If you haven’t read The Golden Compass yet, or any of the other books in the series, I should mention that the books are set in an alternate Earth, mainly in England and parts of northern Europe. In this alternate world, airships are the main form of mass transportation, and the lights are anabaric, not electric (though apparently that’s the same thing). It’s a sort of steam punk world ruled by the Church, a frighteningly totalitarian institution bent on discovering the nature of the human soul and controlling the exercise of free will. This is an exageration of the churches in our real world (though Pullman doesn’t have to exagerate much, in my opinion) and the things those churches have done in the name of God. There’s a great deal of theology packed into this adventure story, which is probably why I’m enjoying it so much. As a Buddhist, I look at Catholic and Christian churches from an outsider’s point of view, and I have no problems dissecting these institutions to see what they’ve done right and what they’ve done wrong. I am normally inclined to question what people do in the name of God, and I’m happy to read a book that does the same thing.
Many people have criticized Pullman’s books as being anti-Christian. I would say the books are more anti-Church. Again, it’s that look at what people do in the name of God, not was God is doing, that’s the focus of the story. People may claim they act in God’s name, but I think they often do what they want and just use God as an excuse. Many of the characters in Pullman’s book are motivated by nefarious goals and quite frequently justify what they do by saying their actions are in compliance with God’s will. These people make for some very intense and chilling villains.
Aside from the theology, there’s quite a bit of adventure and fantasy to enjoy. There are witches and talking polar bears, and of course the daemons, which are the embodiment of people’s souls in Lyra’s world. The plot has plenty of twists and turns, the dialogue is believable, and the world building is excellent. I’m about a quarter of the way through the book at this point, and as much as I’m enjoying it, I’ll probably have it finished by the end of next week. I’ll give a final report then. For right now, I’m giving the book two thumbs up!