Book Review: ‘The Subtle Knife’ by Philip Pullman

The second in the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Subtle Knife is a book that both continues a fantastic story and writes a new one. It captured my interest from the very first page, although it does take a little time to get going. As always, Pullman brings something fresh to the book and effortlessly continues the series with aplomb and simple ease.

the subtle knife2
Jessica delves into book II of Philip Pullman’s famous trilogy, ‘His Dark Materials’…

Initial Impressions

As always, the artwork on the front cover is spectacular – the knife behind the text gives the book just the right amount of intrigue and gravitas to intrigue the reader without giving too much away. Once again the author’s name is at the top of the book, although this time in a yellow so as not to draw attention to itself. The back cover is also orange, with a mix of white and yellow text, and the blurb once again gives a very concise overview of the book. However, one criticism I do have is that it focuses a bit too much on Will’s story rather than what happens with Lyra. Given that the main protagonist of the series is Lyra Belacqua, I think it would possibly have been a better idea to focus on the two equally rather than make the blurb about Will.


In this book, Will Parry murders a man after they come searching for his father’s briefcase. He escapes into another world, where he meets the half-feral Lyra Belacqua and her daemon. When they discover the subtle knife, which allows them to cut into other worlds, their mission becomes clear: find Will’s father and bring him the subtle knife. However, this mission becomes ten times harder when angels, Spectres and witches all become involved in what will become the continuation of a long-standing war. Lyra and Will journey to the far North where they find not only Will’s father, but the ever-imposing Mrs Coulter and her golden monkey waiting for them.


I have to admit, Will’s character didn’t really do a lot for me. He seemed to be too formulaic – young boy is given adversity to face, he rises to the challenge admirably and then (in an almost Star Wars-esque fashion) discovers his father just as said father dies at the hands of an ex-lover, before discovering Lyra is missing. He doesn’t really have much depth to him, or anything that really draws me to him – as with the first book, I am more drawn to Lyra and her feistiness than Will’s almost scripted behaviour. The other characters I enjoyed were Serafina Pekkala and Ruta Skadi, the two witch queens, mainly because again they were feisty and had extremely good hearts which they used to protect Lyra as best they could. Lee Scoresby was also an exceptional character, although I do feel he met a rather untimely demise – I would have preferred it if he died in the third book rather than the second.

Writing Style and Overall Impressions

All in all, this was an adequate sequel to Northern Lights. However, I do feel that Pullman let himself down slightly by focusing predominantly on Will and not keeping Lyra as a central figure in the book. In my view, it would have been better to give Lyra an equal role with Will, rather than being seen as a ‘helper’ or ‘sidekick’ figure, especially as she had such a central role in the first book. However, once again the description was excellent and the imagery definitely caught and held my interest. Not a terrible book, but I do think it could have been improved a bit before going to publication.

You can read Jessica’s review of the first book in the series, Northern Lights here.

Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Scholastic; 1 edition (3 Mar. 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1407130234
ISBN-13: 978-1407130231

Jessica Rhodes

Jess was born in Ramsgate, England, and lived there for 19 years before moving to Norwich where she received her BA (Hons) in Music from the University of East Anglia. Her debut novel, Lady Cannibal, will be her first published novel. Jess is also a blogger for Divulge Magazine.

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