Monday, 20 April 2009

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Lowdown: Lyra wanders between prequel and sequel.
Recently, I have written a very favorable review for the first book in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, The Golden Compass. I have found the book so exciting I couldn’t wait to delve into its sequel, The Subtle Knife. The question was, could Subtle Knife keep up or even better its prequel, especially when given the burden of responsibility that comes when one is sandwiched in the middle of a trilogy?
Given Subtle Knife’s nature as a sequel I don’t want to disclose too much of its plot, so as not to ruin things for those that are yet to read episode 1. What I will say is that the story keeps on following Lyra, the child born in another world’s Oxford. This time around Lyra befriends Will, a boy of a similar age who comes from our world. Together, the duo navigates three parallel universes: Lyra’s, ours, and a transitional one. They are not alone in their wandering: on one hand, witches and explorers go about world touring to help Lyra, and on the other agents of the religiously inclined Magisterium does the same to capture her and learn her secrets; like the Inquisition before them, they have no problems being ruthless. While in the previous book Lyra learned to use The Golden Compass, this time around the artifact of interest that pulls the strings behind Will and Lyra’s scenes is a knife that is said to be subtle.
On The Subtle Knife’s positive side, I can say it is quite exciting to read. Mind you, it’s not half as exciting as The Golden Compass was, but still a book I wanted to finish reading just because I needed to know what is going to happen to our heroes.
The problem is, there is not much else I can add to the positive side. The Subtle Knife is a compromised book by virtue of its sandwiched position, but it takes the sandwich compromise to new heights by being a book that fails to stand by its own rights. It is a book with no start and no ending worth talking about, a book that should have never stood on its own, a book that has obviously been marketed on us in order to create a sellable trilogy and to feed fans with some fodder while the author is busy writing the rest of the story.
What we do have on our hands is a book that fails to add much on top of its predecessor that did create a very fascinating world. Instead, we get more of the same, and we get something that resembles more of a soap opera than a good creative book. In my Golden Compass review I have differentiated between good fantasy stories, that is – stories that involve unreal elements in order to tell us something about the real elements of our real world – and the lesser fantasy stories, that are there primarily to excite us but leave us with no intellectual prize worth talking about after we finish reading them. The Subtle Knife firmly belongs to the latter group.
At its core, Subtle Knife argues that our consciousness is the result of subatomic particles; a fine argument for a fantasy book to make. Things get stretched when the book identifies these particles to be what we call dark matter in our real world. That is, the particles today’s scientists are looking for when they try to explain why our universe expands in a certain way that requires it to have some 70% more mass than we can visibly detect thus far. You can argue that a fantasy book is still entitled to make such claims, and you’d be right, but fantastic arguments lose their exciting taste when they are so closely matched to authentic facts with nothing to support their claim. The path from fantasy to bullshit is a short one, especially when angels and such are added to the mix (and add them the book does).
Indeed, according to The Subtle Knife, its story is all about the fight between evil religion and good science, a fight that manifests itself with said particles. While at the personal level I cannot be said I have much sympathy for religion, I don’t think many but a few religious people consciously go out to fight science and the sense of discovery and wonder it embodies; they just try to maintain their hold on power, like the rest of us. Such bold arguments as the one at the core of The Subtle Knife leave it high and dry.
The Subtle Knife was so dry it made me wonder about problems with its predecessor, things that didn’t really make sense. Take, for example, The Golden Compass itself – a device that tells the truth. Lyra, our hero, has one, but she uses it for minor tasks (e.g., where is this guy, and how do I get to the corner of the Fifth Avenue and Broadway?). With all due respect to Lyra, if I had such a device on my hands I would ask it to help with core questions of the deepest meaning. Things like (a) the winning numbers on tomorrow’s lottery, (b) what happens after death, (c) the theory that combines quantum physics with relativity, and (d) why does a book built on such promising foundations as The Subtle Knife ends up being as unimaginative as it is. Come on, a story about multiple universes that settles with just three of them (all so stupidly similar) is not an imaginative story. The third installment might rectify things, but I didn’t read the third installment; I read the second one, and that second one failed to stand by its own rights.
Add to the above a plot which relies way too much on unlikely circumstances, as in – the father of the hero happens to be the only other person in the world that did the same as our hero, years ago – and you have yourself a book that is more of a caricature than a book worth reading.
I will read the third installment, eventually, because I’m hungry to know what transpires. That said, no matter how exciting The Subtle Knife is, I cannot endorse it.
Overall: The Subtle Knife does not do the fantasy genre any favors. 2 out of 5 stars.


Uri said...

I'm still saying nothing.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Given thea size of the book I'm currently reading, the enthusiasm Jo has showed after reading Old Man's War, and the thickness of the Amber Spyglass, I suspect you will have to use your right to remain silent for a while yet.

Uri said...

Hey! that's one of mine!

By all means, drop everything else and start reading one of those masterpieces of literature I sent.

Matthew Selwyn said...

I'm not a huge sci-fi fan so I couldn't really say if The Subtle Knife does the genre justice, but I think there are some interesting concepts flying about. I do agree though, that the idea of just using three similar parallel universes from an infinite range of possibilities is hardly stretching the imagination.

My review: The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Moshe Reuveni said...

First, it is clearly obvious your review carries much more depth than mine. Great work.
However, I have a problem with the points you're making about Pullman's way of marrying modern science as well as free will motifs to the story. While you may consider the handling of these matters as suitable for young adults, I was not too impressed (I think I used the word "bullshit" in my review). If anything, the idea of using hard to comprehend concepts of quantum physics to explain free will is one that's often used by New Age pseudo-scientists; philosophers and scientists that do know what they're talking about discuss free will in different, more grounded, manners (refer to Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape as an example; personally, I can't wait for his upcoming book, Free Will).
regardless, I had a much bigger problem with the series' third instalment.