"The Subtle Knife" is the second volume in Pullman's trilogy, "His Dark Materials," and picks up where "The Golden Compass" left off. Lord Asriel has killed Lyra's friend Roger in an attempt to create a window between universes. He passes through, then a short time later Lyra follows.
While "The Golden Compass" managed to enchant me, despite its narrative faults, I felt a good deal of disappointment with "The Subtle Knife." It was not just Pullman's tendency to pontificate (though that was certainly a factor), but the comparative lack of imagination, that dooms this book.
The novel begins in "our" Oxford, where we meet a quasi-urchin Will who is forced to flee after accidentally killing one of his mother's visitors. He stumbles upon a window between the worlds, similar to that created by Lord Asriel at the end of "The Golden Compass." He decides that this new world is a wonderful hiding spot, and decides to stay. He shortly stumbles across Lyra, who had crossed through Asriel's window into the same world, the ghastly Cittàgazze. They join forces, and soon come across the eponymous knife, with a blade 'subtle' enough to cut out new windows between worlds.
This felt like literary malpractice. Having established in the first novel the amount of energy it would require to open such a window, and that only a murder qua intercission released such energy, Pullman suddenly realizes that it would be tremendously inconvenient to add a murder ever time he wanted to move the characters from one world to another. So, the Macguffin of the first novel becomes a magic wand in the second. Worse, it is hardly necessary. Having offer a multiverse of possibilities, Pullman only broadens his horizons sufficiently in this novel to include the one world with which we are already familiar: namely, our own. (Cittàgazze hardly counts, as it bears more resemblance to "the woods between worlds" in C.S. Lewis's "Magician's Nephew" than to the fully developed world of Narnia.) Yet Pullman has already shown us pre-existing windows between our Oxford and Cittàgazze, and between Cittàgazze and Lyra's Oxford, and soon shows another window between the two Oxford worlds directly. Good stories are driven by insurmountable obstacles, and it seems hardly sporting for Pullman to rob us of an absolutely marvelous one by giving his characters this work-around. Wouldn't it be far more exciting for the characters to be forced through these smaller and fewer windows, creating bottlenecks and all sorts of opportunities for mischief (what if a crucial window were being guarded by the Magisterium? etc.)
After claiming the blade as his own, Will and Lyra return to the Oxford in his world and meet the physicist Mary Malone, who is experimenting with "dark matter" particles (or, as we soon learn, Dust). This begins a rather long section of exposition. Later, inspired by Lyra's alethiometer, she devises a computer program to "read" the Dust, or rather to let the Dust write back. It is here that we learn that the Lyra's alethiometer (along withMary's Dust-reader) is in fact an occult object. This was hinted at in "The Golden Compass" when Lyra became more familiar with the moods and whimsies of the alethiometer, but here it is confirmed that the compass is itself moved by fallen angels (or rather, 'independent' angels who have rebelled against the Authority).
Most works of fantasy recognize the dangers of unconstrained magic, even within their own worlds, and therefore seek to limit it in some fashion, most often by distinguishing between 'good' and 'evil' forms of magic. Pullman does away with that distinction entirely, or at least upends it beyond recognition. His characters accept that occult magic is perfectly acceptable, and hardly think twice about consulting such figures. The only exception is Mary herself, but she soon dismisses such reticence as a by-product of her cloistered youth (cloistered literally; she had been a nun).
This is perhaps the greatest flaw of the work. It is a straight-forward tale of good vs. evil in which the Christian Church (represented by the Magisterium) and God (represented by the Authority) are unquestionably evil, while fallen angels (led by Xaphania, whose name by Western tradition is properly Satan) and others are on the side of good. This upending of traditional roles might have worked as a background motif, but Pullman insists on drawing our attention to it at every step of the way. It is simply impossible to escape without being proselytized, as though Satanists had suddenly adopted the tactics of Jehovah's Witnesses. Pullman is imitating Milton in retelling the story of Genesis with Satan as a sympathetic figure, only without the finesse that made "Paradise Lost" so compelling. Literary historians still debate what Milton 'meant' in his presentation of Satan; no one will wonder where Pullman's loyalties lie.
Indeed, it is in his book that Pullman finally gives us the broad-brush outline for the entire trilogy. Lord Asriel is not content to merely defeat the Magisterium, but is ambitious enough to strike at the very heart of the Magisterium's power: the Authority Himself. Pullman overcompensates for whisking us through the first novel without a clue as to the ultimate plot, by showing us all of his cards. Throughout the book, Mrs. Coulter seeks information about her daughter by interrogating witches. Eventually she learns that her daughter, Lyra, was prophesied to be "Eve." Mary Malone likewise discovers her destiny as the "Tempter." These archetypes promise to resolve themselves in the next installment, so I will reserve judgment, but the question remains. After all the plot, all the narrative hoopla, even after the twist ending, can there be any doubt as to how the third book will be resolved?
The writing is splendid, the imagery remains consistent and pleasing, and the plot is satisfactory. Pullman has indeed cut a window into another world, and allows each of us a glimpse into another universe. But unlike the first book, these virtues are overburdened by narrative flaws and an unbearably preachy tone that ruins the effect. The imaginative quality is at least temporarily deafened by his apologetic tone. Pullman neither shows nor tells, but defends; this book could be as easily classified as philosophy as it could be as fantasy, and that is no virtue.