Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: July 22nd, 1997
Format: Hardcover, 326 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lyra followed her father across the bridge in the sky and lost him. There was a fog. A dense, impenetrable fog and she has found herself in a world with no one. The town she is in is deserted until one day Will shows up. Will is from an Oxford different than her own. His father was a great explorer and his mother is mentally ill. Will has been caring for his mother all his life since the disappearance of his father. Only now he and his mother are in danger. Men have broken into their house and are searching for something that his father left behind. He secrets his mother away and when he goes home to retrieve that which is sought he accidentally kills one of the intruders. On the run he sees a window into another world and climbs through and meets Lyra. They decide to join forces as the only outsiders in this weird little world they've found themselves in, which isn't empty after all. The town is run by gangs of children because the adults fled due to Spectres, dangerous beings that are invisible to children but destroy adults. The two kids go back and forth between Will's Oxford and CittĂ gazze. Lyra is trying to learn about Dust and Will is trying to find his father. Lyra soon learns, thanks to nudges from the alethiometer, that perhaps her questions will be answered by helping Will find his father. Because as it turns out, his father might have played an important role in Lyra's life so far, as he one day found a window into another world like his son did and walked through, never looking back. But how are these windows even formed? Will will learn the hard way about the Subtle Knife, but it also means that in spite of the danger to him he can always go home.

If you're expecting The Subtle Knife to be a straightforward sequel to The Golden Compass you're in for a bit of a surprise. Yes, it is a continuation of Lyra's story, but perhaps not as anyone growing up reading the Harry Potter books would foresee. Harry Potter is always front and center, but here, Lyra takes a backseat. The spitfire we've grown to love has been drastically changed because of her father's betrayal and therefore it is up to the new character of Will to fill the void. While you could say that it's all about the balancing of these two characters, of male and female, I think the shifting of focus off Lyra might be more in the vein of another famous writer who dealt with church indoctrination, C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia pick up and drop the various Penvensies like they're going out of fashion, and while Pullman never deserts any of our beloved characters, they all have their specific heft depending on the book. And The Subtle Knife belongs to Will, and to a lesser but more emotionally charged way to Lee Scorsby the Texas aeronaut. This kind of results with the reader feeling a little alienated. We've fallen in love with this world and now we're back at square one. Even weirder, we're back in our own world. We have to rebuild our love of this expanding universe while our heroine is in shock. Because Lyra's absenting herself from steering the book makes sense when you think of the very real situation she is in. She's in shock from the death of her best friend Roger. She doesn't know what to do, she's just pinballing around looking for something, someone to rally around and she finds Will and makes him her new cause. Lyra is actively promoting Will while stifling her and Pan's voice.

This change up just adds to the fact that this book is suffering from typical "middle book" problems. Everyone has heard of middle child syndrome, but I think more people need to be aware of the problems inherent in middle books. Ah, the issues facing the bridging book of a trilogy... you need to make it interesting enough that people will wait with baited breath for the final volume, yet you must give them a story that holds up on it's own, while also having a satisfying ending. If you want a master class in a successful middle book look to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers or Laini Taylor's Days of Blood and Starlight or Galen Beckett's The House on Durrow Street. I could go on because when a middle book gets it right it just stays in your mind as being the exception to the rule. While The Subtle Knife does "technically" hold up on it's own, it's not due to any overarching story, it's due to little moments that take your breath away. Imagery that is unforgettable, while Pullman struggles with setting up all the pieces that will be needed for the epic conclusion. Lee Scorsby's last stand in that rocky gulch will just rip your heart out and put it back in all gritty and pained. The witches swirling through the sky, like the unforgettable illustrations of Adrienne Adams's A Woggle of Witches. The dangerous yet somehow ingenious heist of the alethiometer from the odious Sir Charles Latrom. These moments stick with you. I remembered these moments in all the years since I first read The Subtle Knife, but as for anything else like plot? It had slipped out of my head because of all those middle book issues... and worst of all Pullman decided to end the book on a major cliffhanger... sigh. You know, minor cliffhangers can be just if not more satisfying. They also don't alienate your readers.

While there are those who grow to love Will as much as Lyra, I have to say that I've always been on the fence about him. Yes, he has struggled, yes he has survived against the odds, and yes, he has a soft spot for cats, yet there was always something that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Until now. Will's mother is mentally ill. This isn't the problem, the problem is the way in which Philip Pullman describes Will's thoughts in regards to his mother. I don't know if Pullman is trying to show that Will is young and naive or if Pullman himself just doesn't get mental illness. And yes, there are people out there that try as they might just aren't able to comprehend what mental illness is in any form, from having it to dealing with someone who has it. Will is very straightforward about knowing that his mother's problems come from within, that there's something wrong. She obviously has OCD as well as other more serious problems yet when Will hears about the Spectres he starts to fantasize that somehow in his world, this world, that perhaps they are what cause mental illness. While yes, a child does dream of there being some external force that can be removed and their parent returned to normal, the actual belief wouldn't be there. Having spent a childhood growing up seeing those with problems and having OCD myself Will would never be this naive. What's more he describes what his mother does as just things she does, he never once focuses on the underlying compulsion. It's like a flip got switched in her and she does these things without any logic. But the truth is for the person suffering there is a logic, a drive. They might not want to do it, they might be fighting against it every step of the way, but Pullman just doesn't get this across. Mental illness becomes just another problem Will deals with instead of the horror it really is. Pullman trivializes it for his character's backstory.

I guess the reason the way Pullman handles mental illness annoys me is because he's dealing with such weighty issues, reconciling religion and science and yet he got something so wrong that can I trust his analysis of anything? This weird give and take between religion and science is one we have fought of centuries and which is sadly still being fought as Creationism is being taught again in many schools. Yet in Lyra's world experimental theology is what physics is in our world, indicating that there science and religion are more entwined and accepting of each other. As the series continues you see that yes, it is the battle between free thought and that of indoctrination but it's not so clear cut as The Magisterium would want you to think. And yes, this book is taking many ideas and bringing them together for you to think about, especially the fall of man as Milton depicted it in Paradise Lost, but to me, at this point in the series, it almost feels as if Pullman isn't sure what his side is. Both sides have committed atrocities in his narrative, yet we have yet to learn what is the truth. Because this is fiction, while we might speculate day and night and a book that leads to a good discussion is the friend of all book lovers and book clubs everywhere, we still need to know where Pullman's opinion lies. Did God create the universe or did science? This needs to be stated. Clearly. And it wasn't here. Here we suffer once again from middle book issues and have to wait. Sometimes I just want to find authors and shake them. As I write this I'm about a third of the way through The Amber Spyglass and the truth has been revealed and with that revelation I wonder why he waited. Yes, he's created a big set piece with it, so it would have made this book a little longer. But some of the building blocks were in place and a touch more foreshadowing might have made this book a more satisfying read.

But life isn't about satisfaction most of the time. Life is about just living day to day wondering about the mysteries of the universe that if we think too long on we'll be right there with Will's mom. Yet in the end I keep coming back to the more supernatural elements of this story, the fantastical, the prophetic. The witches. The witches have a prophecy that Lyra will be the end of fate by initiating the second fall of man. Here's the thing though, how is there really fate in this "world" that Pullman has built. Prophecies are all nice and good but he's clearly shown us that the multiple worlds theory is at play here and that each and every decision creates a different universe that has splintered off. Therefore everything is possible and everything IS happening at the same time. In a multiverse where everything is possible how exactly does prophecy come into play? Is it just for this ONE Lyra and this ONE Will? If something happened to them could Lord Asriel or Mrs. Coulter or the church go to another universe and nudge that other Lyra or Will into line with what they want? I get that this is a multiverse changing war that's on the horizon, but if everything is possible at all times yet you need a certain chain of events to happen how do you do this? It's almost too hard to reconcile these opposing ideas. So Lyra will end fate. What does that mean? I mean, really, how is fate possible in these books? It could be possible if the worlds were self contained. But travel between them is possible, so then what? Again, middle book issues! It's like he just threw everything at this book and figured he'd work it all out in the end. The problem I have is can he actually work it all out? I seriously don't remember from when I first read this series!

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