Favorites February: The Subtle Knife

Thanks for dropping in for week two of Favorites February! This week I re-read my least favorite book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Subtle Knife. I say least favorite, but obviously I enjoy this series to have read and re-read it, lol.


Lyra finds herself in a shimmering, haunted otherworld – Cittàgazze, where soul-eating Spectres stalk the streets and wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. But she is not without allies: twelve-year-old Will Parry, fleeing for his life after taking another’s, has also stumbled into this strange new realm. On a perilous journey from world to world, Lyra and Will uncover a deadly secret: an object of extraordinary and devastating power. And with every step, they move closer to an even greater threat – and the shattering truth of their own destiny.

Why I Love This Book

  • The multiple-worlds are expanded upon and finally explained in this book, and I love it. More please!
  • Will. He is so troubled and confused and INTERESTING!
  • I love how Will and Lyra become joint-protagonists.
  • Lyra finally gets called out for being childish.
  • More witches!
  • New ways to communicate with Dust.
  • The waiting and build-up surrounding Dust in the first book has BIG payoff in this one.

World Spotlight: Cittágazze

The Subtle Knife takes place really in two worlds: our own (Will’s London) and Cittágazze. Cittágazze is even more oddly different than our world than Lyra’s, though in many ways it is more similar. This is a big driver in the uncomfortable experience of reading this book.

Similarities to our world:

  • Technology, more or less. There’s electricity, refrigerators, canned baked beans.
  • People speak English.
  • Fashion seems to be similar to ours.
  • Children can be terrible and mob-like.

Differences from our world:

  • Geography. Nothing has names that are even similar to our own.
  • Specters, ghost-like figures that devour a person’s consciousness, run amok like zombies or dementors, terrorizing the planet.
  • For some reason everyone is terrified of cats?
  • No antibiotics or modern medicine.
  • Technology, wealth, etc. is mostly stolen from other worlds.
  • While ours and Lyra’s world are just starting to come into their own, Cittágazze is in the process of falling.

Cittágazze is, by design, the reader’s least favorite world explored in this series. It functions as a sort of crossroad between roads and as a means of moving the plot forward. But as a result of Specters and man’s greed, it’s a pretty terrible place, and Lyra and Will definitely do not enjoy spending time there.

Discussion Questions

Questions taken from Penguin Random House. Please feel free to play along in the comments! It’s a DISCUSSION, lol.

1. What is wrong with Will’s mother? Are her concerns real, imagined, or both? Why and how does Will protect her?

This might be the most interesting question, because no satisfactory answer is ever given by the author, and it is up to the reader to make that determination. I always read this that Will’s mom had some sort of mental illness, possibly paranoid schizophrenia. Possibly the trauma of losing her husband triggered her illness.

However, it’s also possibly that after Will’s father disappeared the other people looking for the anomaly pestered her and distressed her to the point of breaking her. Will thinks maybe there is a Specter attacking her, however I think you are meant to chalk that up to the innocence of children, unable to understand that there may be something inside hurting you like that.

2. What does it mean when Lyra assumes Will’s daemon is “inside”? Do the people in Will’s world, our world, have daemons at all?

I’ve always thought that the daemon is the physical manifestation of one’s soul. So for Will’s daemon to be inside means his soul is inside of him. This is decidedly different from the children at Bolvangar who have no connection to their daemon at all. Those children have, essentially, lost their soul. But the people of Will’s world do have a daemon, it just has no physical manifestation.

3. Why is it significant that the possessors of the alethiometer and the subtle knife are children? What is the difference between innocence and experience?

This series is all ABOUT the difference between innocence and experience. It’s been too long since I read The Amber Spyglass, so I can’t remember for sure what Pullman ends up determining is the difference. But one of the main differences that we see in both Will and Lyra from the adults in the series is their black-and-white view of the world. They each have a clear idea of what they think are right and wrong, and either you are on their side, or you aren’t. There’s no in-between, no complexity. This allows them to pursue their goals with a single-minded determination.

HOWEVER, what is interesting about this, is that Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, and Grumman also are very determined. Their willingness to ignore right and wrong and do whatever serves their own purpose is … not that different from Lyra’s emphatic judgement of others.

The most pronounced difference between innocence and experience Pullman makes in this series, however, is definitely the sexual awakening. The children do not know about or understand sex. They are only just starting to worry about the difference between boys and girls, and only occasionally feel awkward about their opposite genders.

The significance of the knife and the compass in the hands of children comes more into play in the final book. Because the children are innocent, they don’t fully understand everything they (or others) are doing. This allows them to make decisions that adults would never make, and then finally to re-create history.

4. How do the Shadows that communicate with Lyra through the computer relate to dark matter and/or Dust? If Lyra can understand the Shadows as she understands the alethiometer, then is the computer also acting as a truth-giving device? What is the real origin of the Shadows’ messages?

Pullman calls Dust or dark matter “Angels”. However, spirit might also be an appropriate translation. Angels are made of spirit. For Christians, this might best be understood as the Holy Spirit. For non-believers, he also uses the word “conciousness”. So Lyra and Dr. Malone have found a way to communicate with the Spirit of the universe.

What is so interesting about this question is that the alethiometer stops acting as a truth-giving device in this book. Instead, it starts telling Lyra what to do. It is clear that Dust, whatever you understand it to be, has an agenda unknown to us. It forces you to wonder, has the alethiometer been telling the truth up until now? Or has it been telling Lyra what she wanted her to hear, or what Dust wanted her to know?

7 thoughts on “Favorites February: The Subtle Knife

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