Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club

The Subtle Knife
by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife hardback cover

The Subtle Knife (1997)
His Dark Materials Book Two
Sequel to The Golden Compass

Knopf hardback edition - 326 pages
cover artwork by Eric Rohmann (left)

Del Rey paperback edition - 288 pages
Cover artwork by Eric Peterson (right)

The Subtle Knife paperback cover

Covers for 2001 Del Rey USA His Dark Materials paperbacks
From the US paperback back cover:
       Having slipped through a newly formed astral portal, the intrepid Lyra finds herself in the beautiful, haunted world of Citągazze---a city where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky.  But she is not without allies.  For young Will Parry, in search of his father, has also stumbled into this strange new realm via a magic gateway.
       Together the enlightened pair forge ahead on a perilous journey between worlds teeming with witches, angels, and sorcery---and uncover a deadly secret: an object of extraordinary and devastating power.  But with every step, they move closer to an even greater threat--and the shattering truth of their own destiny...

Read for group discussion on October 27, 1999

From the back cover of UK paperback:
       Will is twelve years old and he's just killed a man. Now he's on his own, on the run, determined to discover the truth about his father's disappearance.
       Then Will steps through a window in the air into another world, and finds himself with a companion -- a strange, savage little girl called Lyra. Like Will, she has a mission which she intends to carry out at all costs.
       But the world of Cittągazze is a strange and unsettling place. Deadly, soul-eating Spectres stalk its streets, while high above, the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. And in the mysterious Torre degli Angeli lurks Cittągazze's most important secret -- an object which people from many worlds would kill to possess...

Point paperback edition - 341 pages (right)
The Subtle Knife UK cover

Will Parry - defensive runaway boy, from Oxford in our world
Lyra Silvertongue - a feisty, aristocrat born girl from another world
Pantalaimon (Pan) - Lyra's shape shifting daemon
Lee Scoresby - Texan aeronaut or balloonist (daemon Hester, a hare)
Serafina Pekkala - Lapland witch, queen of a witch clan (daemon Kaisa, a snow goose)
Ruta Skadi - witch queen of Latvia, a lover of Lord Asriel (daemon Sergi, a bluethroat)
Mrs. Coulter (Marisa) - Lyra's feared mother (golden monkey daemon)
Dr. Mary Malone - head of Dark Matter Research unit, Dust Researcher
John Parry - Will's father, professional explorer, lost on Archaeological expedition
Dr. Stanislaus Grumman - of the Berlin Academy, Tartar shaman (daemon Sayan Kötör, osprey)
Juta Kamainen - witch scorned by Stanislaus Grumman (daemon robin)
Sir Charles Latrom - old man who steals the Lyra's alethiometer
Angelica - red headed girl from Cittągazze
Paolo - boy from Cittągazze, Angelica's little brother
Tullio - young man with curly red hair, Angelica's older brother
Giacomo Paradisi - old man, bearer of the subtle knife on behalf of guild
Lord Boreal (Carlo) - an associate of Mrs. Coulter (snake daemon)
Lena Feldt - a witch (daemon snow bunting)
Lord Asriel - at war against the Authority, Lyra's father (snow leopard daemon)
Lizzie - false name Lyra uses
Mark - false name Will uses
a tabby cat

Places, things, and other beings:
alethiometer - symbol reader, Lyra has one, tells you the truth
The subtle knife - one edge cuts through anything, other edge cuts between worlds
Cittągazze - abandoned semi-tropical city, the city of magpies
Specters of indifference - attack only grownups, afraid of subtle knife
Torre degli Angeli - Tower of the Angels of the Philosopher's Guild in Cittągazze
Angels - call themselves bene elim, watchers
Dust - elementary particle, attracted especially to adults, Rusakov particles
Green leather case - Will's mother's possession, contains letters from Will's dad
Nova Zembla - where Lee asks about Grumman, and gets ring from Skraeling

How we each rated this book
Dan 8 Amy 9 stack of books 10   Wow! Don't miss it
8-9  Highly recommended
7    Recommended
5-6  Mild recommendation
3-4  Take your chances
1-2  Below average; skip it
0    Get out the flamethrower!
U    Unfinishable or unreadable
-    Skipped or no rating given
Cheri 8 Barb 8
Aaron 6 Cynthia 8
Lindsey - Jackie 9
Kerry -    

Aaron's Commentary   Philip Pullman - The Subtle Knife

His Dark Materials is a superb fantasy adventure series, but The Subtle Knife is to me the weakest of the three volumes.  It has far less of the amazing imagery that makes the other books so remarkable.  Many of Pullman's memorable creations from The Golden Compass are either conspicuously absent (including Iorek Byrnison and the armored polar bears) or play a much smaller role in the story (particularly the daemons).  The people and places introduced in this book, such as Cittągazze and its inhabitants, are rather bland in comparison.

The Subtle Knife also suffers from being the middle book in a trilogy.  Pullman busies existing characters like Lee Scoresby with long, pointless errands.  Meanwhile, new characters are introduced for reasons that will not become apparent until the next book.  Pullman also dangles a host of interesting scientific and theological speculations about the nature of "dust," but leaves them all to be tied up later.

Still, there are some exciting moments, especially the scene when Will and Lyra attempt to steal back the alethiometer.  And while I didn't much care for how Pullman resolved Will's search for his father, I did appreciate the depth of Will's character.  He is certainly a more worthy companion for Lyra than was Roger in The Golden Compass.

What do you think? Your comments are welcome. Please send them to

Our book group has also read the following book by Philip Pullman:
-- The Golden Compass  in April 1998
-- The Amber Spyglass  in September 2002

The Golden Compass (1995)
His Dark Materials Book One

The Amber Spyglass (2000)
His Dark Materials Book Three

Golden Compass

Cover art for both hardback editions by Eric Rohmann

Amber Spyglass

The His Dark Materials trilogy is intended to reflect elements of John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667).
Philip Pullman (1946-    ) is a UK writer

1995 Carnegie Medal for His Dark Materials Book 1: Northern Lights (The Golden Compass)
1996 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize or Guardian Award for Northern Lights
2001 Whitbread Book of the Year for The Amber Spyglass
2005 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

He's is best known for the "His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass (1995, original UK title Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000).

Other short books set in the His Dark Materials universe are : Lyra's Oxford (2003) which features an episode with Lyra set after the end of the trilogy; and Once Upon a Time in the North (2008) which is a prequel episode featuring Lee Scoresby.

Most of Pullman's books can be categorized as YA (young adult) fiction, but his first two novels The Haunted Storm (1972) and Galatea (1978) were for adults, and his third Count Karlstein (1982) was for children.

The Sally Lockhart YA sequence The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), The Shadow in the North (1988), The Tiger in the Well (1990), and The Tin Princess (1994) are thrillers set in 19th century London.

Pullman has also written the following YA books: How to be Cool (1987) for older teen readers; Spring-Heeled Jack (1989) about a Robin Hood-like character; The Broken Bridge (1990) a modern tale of a mixed-race girl coming of age; The White Mercedes (1992) a contemporary mystery of lost innocence, which was re-issued as The Butterfly Tatoo (1998); Clockwork (1998) a dark fantasy set in Germany; The Firework-Maker's Daughter(1999) an Asian fable; I was a Rat...or the Scarlet Slippers (1999) which is an animal fantasy; and The Scarecrow and his Servant (2004).

Our book club's page for The Golden Compass
Our book club's page for The Amber Spyglass
His Dark Materials fantasy books: 2001 editions
Randomhouse: His Dark Materials
Seized by the Tale : Review of The Subtle Knife
Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife - an infinity plus review book news: Philip Pullman article Nov. 2000
Torre degli Angeli
Philip Pullman - Wikipedia

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This page was last updated October 12, 2008