Friday, December 21, 2007

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Shame on you, Philip Pullman.

With the second novel in your fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, you have committed a multitude of sins against the reader.

You ensnared many in the complex, multifaceted alternate world of The Golden Compass. Like them, I fell in love with Lyra, was intrigued by her quest to discover the nature of Dust and looked forward to joining her and Pantalaimon for the rest of their journey.

Then, with The Subtle Knife, you led me into a morass of sloppy writing, wooden characters, a directionless plot and illogical situations.

First, you gutted Lyra. What happened to this brave, resourceful and charismatic girl who was such an immensely appealing character?

Why, she abandoned her own quest to help a new hero, Will Parry, find his missing father. (Wow, what an original plotline!) Lyra becomes a mere shadow of her former self: quiet, uncomplaining, colorless and very much relegated to the background.

One of the joys of The Golden Compass was the relationship between Lyra and Pan, her daemon companion. He fades along with Lyra, only occasionally speaking or changing shape just to remind the reader he's still around.

This may not have been so infuriating if you, Philip Pullman, had given us a hero as complex as Lyra. Alas, Will Parry is a stoic, apathetic bore with an unappealing violent streak.

Toward the end of the book, Will suddenly declares Lyra is the best friend he's ever had. Gee, you could have fooled me. For most of the story, he seems alternately indifferent to or annoyed by her.

You abandoned the sense of wonder and adventure that propelled me through The Golden Compass. Instead, I got a meandering, confusing plot that did not so much reach a climax as just abruptly stop, without resolving anything.

Not a single character was interesting or believable, and the novel was a chore to read.

On top of all this, you were inexcusably sloppy. I came across so many blatant contradictions and unbelievable scenes, it was laughable. To mention just some:

1. The Subtle Knife introduces Specters, who consume the life force of adults and leave them as indifferent, soulless zombies. Early in the book, a minor character mentions he took refuge from a band of Specters by hiding in a hut. This led me to assume Specters could not enter buildings. However, the philosopher who gives Will the subtle knife later says he will kill himself when Will departs, because the Specters can enter his tower when they are no longer kept at bay by the magical weapon.

2. A young man who wants the subtle knife walks through a city infested by Specters to safely arrive at the tower. After Will and Lyra drive him off, he is consumed by Specters the moment he steps outside again.

3. The villainous Mrs. Coulter reveals toward the end of the book she can see through a witch's spell that causes them to be invisible to others. Yet in an earlier scene, she does not apprehend a witch spying on her while invisible, when doing so might have helped her discover Lyra's true nature.

4. Sir Charles, who steals Lyra's alethiometer, knows of several portals that lead from Will's world to other worlds. Why then does he not notice the disturbance in the air from the portal Will opens in his very own study?

5. Will is seriously wounded about midway through the book and spends the rest of the story bleeding profusely. He fights off a gang of murderous children, travels a great distance and climbs a mountain without passing out or going into shock.

At the end of The Subtle Knife, you, the author, finally reveal the protagonists' plan to wage all-out war against the Authority, or the Creator, or God, or whatever you want to call him. I couldn't see much of a reason why they should. In my comments on The Golden Compass, I mentioned it bothered me that the Magisterium, the book's chief villain, was such a nonentity, playing only a minor role in the story. The Subtle Knife didn't tell me any more about this Church that is supposed to be making everyone miserable. Most characters seemed to live their lives untouched by its influence.

Yes, you had some villains, but I still don't know why they are so nasty and evil or why they are committed to the Magisterium. Sauron, reduced to a giant disembodied eye by the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, had more personality than your evil characters.

I honestly don't understand why so many people praised The Subtle Knife, or looked forward with any pleasure to concluding the trilogy with The Amber Spyglass. I plan to read it only because I'd like to know what all the fuss is about, and I'm curious to see if you can extricate yourself from the giant mess you left behind with The Subtle Knife.

My grade: F.

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