Middle books are infamously difficult. They lack the originality of the first novel, but the satisfaction of the finale; they often are piece-setting books, a chance to get things in place for the final volume. And yet, every so often, you get a middle volume that’s every bit the equal of its predecessor – and such is the case with The Subtle Knife, which follows The Golden Compass in a way that both expands on the original’s world and builds on it, continuing the story while still somehow feeling like its own unique entry in the series.
Much of that comes from the decision to, at first, make The Subtle Knife entirely disconnected from the first entry. We don’t open on the cliffhanger on which we left; we don’t even open on Lyra, or her world, at all. Instead, we open on our world, with a new protagonist: a boy named Will, who has been desperately trying to cover up for his mother’s mental illness, only to discover that there might actually be men out to get her. It doesn’t take long for things to get out of hand, putting Will on the run and on a collision course with Lyra, as the two start finding gateways and windows between worlds. Meanwhile, back in Lyra’s world, Lord Asriel’s plan to do nothing short of battling God is coming together, with Lady Coulter still serving as the wild card in the mix.
In short, then, a lot happens in The Subtle Knife, which moves every bit as fast as The Golden Compass but takes on even more, diving between worlds, moving in and out of world-building, and taking on scientific concepts like dark matter and theological questions such as the nature of Original Sin. All of which could easily sink a lesser book, but somehow, Pullman juggles it all successfully, investing us in the characters and their plight first, and using his philosophical underpinnings as a way to drive the story, while never making them feel tacked on or thoughtless.
It also ends up making the series fairly weighty fare for its YA audience, but in a way that the best YA books manage, addressing its ideas thoughtfully but never condescendingly, explaining them in clear ways that never feel as though the author is talking down to his readers. Yes, by The Subtle Knife it becomes clear that Pullman’s idea of writing the anti-Narnia is more complicated than we might have expected; instead of simply arguing that there is no God, Pullman is grappling with the philosophical and theological assumptions of Christianity (and Catholicism in particular), arguing as much with the execution of the Church as the idea of it. That’s a fascinating take on things, and makes the series more than a simple atheist screed; instead, it works as a coming-of-age story that questions a belief system in thoughtful ways.
Mind you, if the book was simply a theological argument, it wouldn’t be this fun to read. And yet, again, on this front, Pullman succeeds wildly, pulling out action sequences, diving into the world of the polar bears, building to a massive war, cranking up the suspense, and delivering plot reveals that will drop your jaw. It really is easy to forget just what an incredible accomplishment this series is, and just how engaging, fun, exciting, and compelling it all is – and the fact that it’s not just surface sheen, but something richer, is even better. In short, it’s every bit as good as The Golden Compass, and maybe even better – and that’s no small feat.