In the first chapter of The Subtle Knife, OH YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME I AM SO RIDICULOUSLY UNPREPARED FOR THIS BOOK. If you’re intrigued by that, then it’s time for Mark to start The Subtle Knife.
Let’s do predictions for this book first before things get underway. (Note: These predictions were actually written on Thursday, June 23, after I finished my final review for The Golden Compass.)
MARK’S WINCE-INDUCING PREDICTIONS FOR THE SUBTLE KNIFE
- Lyra is going to make a very important ally in the parallel universe who also knows what Dust is; she’ll make another ally who does not, but comes to learn what it is.
- About that parallel universe: I’m going to predict it will be yet another alternate world and not one that is supposed to be our own.
- Both Iorek and Mrs. Coulter will find a way to come into the parallel world.
- We will get confirmation that Roger is indeed dead.
- This alternate world will NOT have dæmons in it, and Lyra is going to get a lot of negative attention because of it, possibly even persecution/imprisonment?
- There will be a version of The Golden Compass’s Magisterium/Church in the parallel world.
- Someone will find a way to travel to a third parallel universe.
- Lyra will find Lord Asriel before the halfway point in the novel.
- The Subtle Knife will end with a cliffhanger. (OK DUH but gosh I have to have some predictions right.)
- We will get confirmation whether Dust is a good thing or a bad thing.
- Lord Asriel will NOT destroy the source of dust; additionally, we will obviously have to find out the source of it in this book two.
- Whomever Lyra finds to be her ally….I predict they’ll die. (If there is more than one, then I am saying one of her allies will die by the book’s end.)
It’s weird trying to predict because I have no clue at all to the direction of this trilogy. She’s entering a parallel universe, meaning that literally anything could happen. ARGH SO UNPREPARED. All right, on to the review!
CHAPTER ONE: THE CAT AND THE HORNBEAM TREES
Well, now I should just toss out all of those predictions. By the time I finished the first chapter of The Subtle Knife, I could not shake the utter embarrassment coursing through my veins. I wrongly assumed that we’d just jump into Lyra appearing on the other side, and now it’s clear that Pullman is sitting somewhere, far away from where I am right now, and he is laughing. He is tenting his fingers with a malicious expression of joy etched into his smile, and he derives pleasure from how unprepared my mind is for all of this.
Wow. What an opener.
In The Golden Compass, it was common for Pullman to give us brief bouts of narration from the point of view of just a single side character, and then return to Lyra. This chapter opens from the perspective of Will, a young boy from London, and I figured that this would be the same thing: We’d get a few pages of Will’s view and my guess was that Lyra would simply appear in front of him or something, having traveled from her universe to his.
My innocence is so precious.
What Pullman sets up here so wonderfully is a contrast of characters. As I’m sure was the case with each of you, I ached to find out what the hell happened to Lyra when she crossed the bridge to the stars and entered the world she saw in the Aurora. Instead, I’m given (what is initially) a very confusing story that transforms itself into an eerie escape. We’ve seen how willing Pullman is to develop characters. I’m reminded of all of the time that he spent building up the world of Jordan College, contrasting it with Lyra’s life in the streets; I’m reminded of how much of the first book was spent giving us the culture of the gyptians and how Pullman used this not only to build Lyra’s character, but to give us a greater sense for how this universe worked.
He does this here, but I can already see how he’s using it in a completely different way: to contrast Lyra’s life with Will’s. Will is not a child born into glamour, ease, or freedom. I must admit that I was worried about the characterization of Will’s mother in the early scenes of this chapter, concerned that this book would do a poor job of representing someone with a mental illness. But it’s clear that Pullman has written these characters with nothing short of adoration: Both adore each other, and Pullman has no qualms about making sure that there is absolutely nothing here to suggest that Will’s mother is not fit for the job or that Will doesn’t love her with all of his heart. Even if the opening scene with Mrs. Cooper is completely jarring and confusing, this isn’t about building a mystery as much as it is about showing us what life is for a single mother and her son and how those two cope.
Still, I can’t ignore how Pullman uses these opening scenes to create an environment of paranoid fear: Why is Will so desperate to leave his mother with Mrs. Cooper and then just disappear? Why won’t he tell this woman why he can’t go home? What strikes me is how prepared and insistent Will is: He already has everything his mother might need, even thinking to bring her food so it won’t cost the Coopers anything, and the way he speaks to Mrs. Cooper is both slightly demanding and completely confident.
What the hell is going on?
Pullman doesn’t answer that yet, and I am perfectly okay with that. He takes us through the (recent) life of Will and his mother, from their shabby house on a loop road to the green leather writing case. Will is insistent on finding this case and we aren’t told what it is the case holds that has made so desperate to find it. In exhaustion, he passes out out of hours of searching his empty house.
And almost at once, it seemed (though he’d been asleep for nearly three hours), he woke up knowing two things simultaneously.
First, he knew where the case was. And second, he knew that the men were downstairs, opening the kitchen door.
Even though Pullman takes brief breaks from the action to give us some more insight into Will’s life, it’s full speed ahead from this moment on. IN THE FIRST CHAPTER. Who these men are is anyone’s guess at this point. (Wait, that phrase doesn’t work here, does it? Since you all actually know who they are. OH GOD.)
Of everything Pullman is good at, he sure knows how to write suspense. How does he do this so many times and it never feels old?
Will braced himself as he heard the quiet creak of the top stop. The man was making no noise at all, but he couldn’t help the creak if he wasn’t expecting it. Then there was a pause. A very thin beam of flashlight swept along the floor outside. Will saw it through the crack.
Right, so…..it’s not like Will has magical powers. (OR DOES HE IN THIS UNIVERSE.) He’s going to be found once the door opens. So how does he deal with it?
BY RUNNING STRAIGHT INTO THE MAN. He doesn’t tackle him or knock him to the ground, but, in a bizarre bout of chance, Will’s cat Moxie is right behind the man and he ends up falling down the stairs and smashing his head on a table in the hallway. Hard. It’s such a rapid scene, and it’s eerie that Will manages to dash out of the house as the other man simply comes “out of the living room [to] stare.” At this point, I knew Will would be in shock, as I’m sure he didn’t expect to hurt anyone, but this quickly becomes worse than that. Will immediately hides in the bushes outside the estate boundary and recalls how the man’s neck was bent in an unnatural way and he knows in his heart the man is dead.
Well. That’s certainly a way to open a book, isn’t it?
We also have the very first sign of what sort of universe this is. Pullman makes a remark about how Will will most definitely be chased by the men “with their cars and their cell phones.” So that is distinctly something our world has that the other universe did not. I am going to assume, based on Lord Asriel’s description, that each world is experiencing time exactly, meaning that all universes are tied together by the same progression of time. So this has to be at least in the 90s, yes? Possibly later? Either way, we can see that no one here has a dæmon and there are cell phones. I’m assuming this is meant to be our world for now.
For the moment, though, Will is altogether concerned with another thought. He’d been preoccupied with getting the leather case as soon as possible, but now the young boy must face the fact that he may have just killed someone. Out of self defense, sure, but the man who fell down the stairs in his house is surely dead.
He has something new to fear instead of what he had come to accept at that point in his life. As Will moves on from his hiding spot, Pullman flashes back to help explain to us why Will and his mother are so close, and why someone needs to take care of her. I cannot pretend to know what sort of illness or disorder she has, but it’s one marked with confusion and paranoia. As a younger child, this was represented in a game in the supermarket, Pullman tells us. Again, as I mentioned before, these scenes are painted with affection. Even when Will begins to discover that the grocery store game of spies and enemies is a coping method of sorts for his mother, he doesn’t choose to demonize her for it. Instead, to keep her happy, he always humors her, even if it is to the detriment of himself. To me, that is love, and that is acceptance. When Will discovers that the “enemies” his mother speaks about are not real to him, he doesn’t lash out at his mother. He acknowledges that her fear is still very real to her, and that is all that matters.
Like Lyra, Will also has grown out with any real significant father figure, but because of his mother, he’s developed a personality and a moral sense to life that is far different than Lyra’s. First of all, he’s grown up with a more active sense of responsibility and duty, having had to take care of his mother. He inherently respects those older than him, too, and doesn’t possess the brattier tendencies that we’ve seen in Lyra. At the same time, he also views his father in an almost mythical way: his reputation precedes him, and he dreams of adventures with a father he’s never really known, off in lands far from here, exploring desolate terrains. Hell, in that sense, Will’s father and Lord Asriel share a pretty blatant similarity, too.
Make no mistake, though: Will loves his mother very much, and I adore that Pullman writes this so that it’s very clear. He loves her and it’s not in spite of anything either. He loves her at all times, happy or sad, joyous or fearful. As he says, he wants “nothing more than to live with [his mother] alone forever.”
As to why these mysterious men come looking for Will’s father, demanding to know where he is, assuming Ms. Parry (is this her name? Mrs. Parry? Something else? hmmm) knows: you’ve got me beat. I don’t even feel I have enough information to make a guess. But it’s certainly unsettling to me that they return again and again, illegally breaking into the Parry household, searching for something. Will reveals it: the case, which contains letters that are heavily implied to be from Will’s father. Why is Will’s father so important? What did he do?
So here we are, deep into the introduction of the second book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, and there’s not even the slightest acknowledgment of the last book. It’s as if this is its own story altogether, unconnected to anything, only tied to this all by the name of the author. To say I’m surprised is an understatement; more than anything, I’m impressed. None of this is uninteresting at all, and my mind is wandering to other conclusions. Is this whole book about Will? What does this have to do with anything at all? I started trying to find signs that this was linked to The Golden Compass. When we learn that Will has managed to hitchhike, walk, and take two buses all the way to Oxford (from LONDON!!!!), I of course thought that this is where he’d have some run-in with Lyra. Right??? I mean, if she was going to travel to a parallel universe, wouldn’t she try to locate the things most familiar to her?
But this is not the case. There’s no Lyra here. Will wanders Oxford, exhausted. He reaches a traffic circle and is unsure where to go, what to do, or how he’s going to rest. It’s here that Philip Pullman, yet again, can be heard cackling in the distance: We’re about to find out how this is connected to The Golden Compass. In this case, it’s a cat that draws Will’s attention, and he can’t understand why it is pawing suspiciously at the air, as if something is there, and then jump back, frightened, as if something touched it. He watches with curiosity as the cat seems to warm to the idea of this invisible entity, walks forward, and disappears.
Readers: ANOTHER. FUCKING. UNIVERSE.
Proving I know nothing about anything and tearing apart nearly every prediction I made, now I know Lyra is not in this world, which might be our world. For Will examines this invisible spot and realizes HE CAN SEE GRASS FROM ANOTHER PARALLEL UNIVERSE.
What’s so goddamn brilliant about this is that Pullman took the entirety of The Golden Compass to build up the world of dæmons and Lyra and the gyptians and Jordan College, only to bring that all crashing down in tragedy in the last third of the book. Lyra left her world to cross into another because she felt she had nothing left for her, that she needed to escape the evils that would certainly ruin. In just a handful of pages in the first chapter of The Subtle Knife, he tears apart the world of Will Parry, leading him to a hole in the fabric of the universe, and giving him a believable story that would make us understand why this twelve-year-old boy would climb through this spot in the world.
That is simply amazing to me.
The first idea that parallel universes don’t work the same as I had thought is here: Will does not end up in the “same” place as where he came from. He doesn’t end up in Oxford and it’s now obvious that this palm-tree-heavy universe is the same one that was seen in the Aurora throughout the last book. (It could not have been a coincidence that there were palm trees here. Will thinks it looks “Mediterranean” or “Carribean,” like “the kind of place where people came out late at night to eat and drink, to dance and enjoy music.”
Leave it to Pullman to then make this all like an episode of The Twilight Zone: There is not a person in the universe. Not a sound. Not a creature. Just an entire world with cafes and shops and hotels, like any other village or city, but not a living creature in sight or in sound.
WHAT THE FUCK. If every universe is the result of a choice, what kind of choice led to this????
I almost expected this to turn into a zombie movie at this point. I’m reminded of those creepy, unsettling scenes in 28 Days Later. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean. Here, the vastness of this city engulfs Will’s senses; there should be people here. Why does it look like everyone just disappeared in the middle of their lives? How can Will find COLD LEMONADE?
Yet as disturbing as this all is to me, it provides will with the most unique sense of relief. He heads out to the harbor, touching everything along the way as a method to ensure that this is all very real, and he finally decides to take a nighttime swim in the ocean. As if being baptized into this new universe, awash with the drifting sea water, he feels safe here: there is no way the men who were after the letters will find him here. It’s such a fascinating statement because I imagine I would have wet myself with fear at least five times at this point, but Will has entered this new world and feels safe.
Will continues exploring this vacant place, attempting to find some food, and comes upon a cafe that he discovers has an apartment of some kind above it. He heads upstairs; it’s clearly been lived in, but, like the rest of this place, there’s no one here. However, he learns that is not exactly true: he senses that he’s not alone, that there is someone or something behind the only closed door in the room, and before he can open it, some unknown creature bursts out of it and attacks him, punching and thrashing, and it isn’t a creature but a young girl, and not just any young girl, but a young girl who has a wildcat with her OH MY GOD YOU ARE KIDDING ME.
Lyra. It’s LYRA. LYRA IS HERE. PANTALAIMON IS HERE. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE WHERE ARE THEY.
There are three distinct universes now. Oh, my head. my brain is exploding.
I’m not surprised that Lyra almost immediately asks Will where his dæmon is, though this is entirely understandable: given what she’d seen in Bolvangar, any human without their dæmon is cause for concern. But Will assures her he doesn’t have one, that the word means something different entirely, that in his world, it’s evil. I love that they don’t toy around with this at all: Both characters admit that they are not from this world, and I’m glad this very fact is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact way. I mean…they are in a city with NO LIVING CREATURES IN IT ASIDE FROM EACH OTHER. This needed to be acknowledged rather quickly, no?
To bring around what I mentioned in the beginning, it’s here that we see how Pullman is able to contrast these two young protagonists. Will has had years of practice in independence, and he sets out to make the two of them food. Lyra, on the other hand, is a bit confused by the whole thing. She’s always had someone at Jordan College doing things for her. On top of that, this third world has so much stuff in it that is completely foreign to her, but not Will. In essence, we get to see how Lyra is entirely out of her element. She’s uncomfortable. She is uncertain. And now she is in the presence of a boy who is confident and certain, and that makes her feel even worse.
Their night meal is a chance both for the awkwardness between them to grow, and for them both to start asking questions. When Will asks Lyra where she is from, she describes a fog of some sort that she had to walk to before she could see this world. Was that the bridge itself? Is this an entire world or is this just a village? Lyra turns the questioning around on Will, demanding to know where his dæmon is or if he’s hiding it from her. But Will doesn’t understand this; instead, the thought that Lyra has a constant companion makes him feel lonely.
There’s not much progress made beyond this; Will decides he needs to actually try to get some sleep. I laughed when Lyra immediately demanded, in that masterful tone of hers, to be taken to the spot where the hole in the universe was, especially after she learns he got here from Oxford. I do do understand it, though, because it sounds like Lyra and Pantalaimon have been alone for days in this city, and now this young boy has give her a link to something that sounds familiar to her. The two argue about it, both set on getting their way, but Will ultimately wins out.
It’s here that Pullman switches back to Lyra’s point of view, which I didn’t expect so soon. She waits until Will falls asleep, and then she sneaks in on him, curious to know what sort of person he is. I’d forgotten that you could read a person’s dæmon in Lyra’s world to help determine character, but there’s no such thing here. Instead, she pulls out the alethiometer, which surprisingly works in this world as well. When she asks if Will is a friend or an enemy, the alethiometer gives a more specific answer:
He is a murderer.
Oh no, I thought. This can’t end well. But for Lyra, this is a sign that she can give Will Parry her confidence. Worried that he wouldn’t be of the calibre to join her on her journey to find Lord Asriel and Dust, she knows that any twelve-year-old boy who has already killed someone is certainly not one consumed with fear or distrust.
This gives her comfort. This, however, gives me a distinct lack of preparedness.
What a genius opening chapter.