In the fifth chapter of The Subtle Knife, Will and Lyra realize how important it is for them to trust one another, and Will finally reads the letters from the leather case he is carrying. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Subtle Knife.
While the plot of The Subtle Knife races forward at a pace I wasn’t ready for, I have to say that I love that there’s still a hefty dose of character development dropped into the narrative. Don’t get me wrong: I love how exciting this all is, how the answers are pouring out liberally in the text, and how the fabric of this story is coming together in fantastic ways. It reminds me of the second season of LOST, when the scientific concepts were first introduced into the show, adding a brand new layer of intrigue that appealed to me. I like stories that take things that exist in the real world and explain them in new ways. (Doctor Who does that a lot. Bless you, Doctor Who.)
Still, I want to care about it. My brain can only go so far when it comes to fiction, and I’ve always been the sort of person who really wants to experience stories with people who grow. (Or don’t grow, as character recession can be just as fascinating.) What it really comes down to, though, is that I need an emotional base to keep going. I need something to draw me in and keep me there, and sometimes that comes from seeing parallels to my own life. Sometimes, it’s because I’m reading about something I have never experienced myself. Either way, I want characters who are whole people, even if I have to deal with the uncomfortable nature of that.
People are inherently messy, and that’s just the way it’s going to be. As social entropy finds ways to topple the relationships and loyalties that seem to exist unscathed, it’s up to us to use our agency to fight the natural plight of deterioration. To me, that’s what Will and Lyra do here: For a brief second, it seems that their experiences are about to crumble as trust issues flare up between them. Yet the both fight against the urge to let this all fall apart by acknowledging that they need each other to get through this.
It doesn’t help that Lyra comes to Will with an attitude that is the polar opposite of his: She’s found what she was looking for in the Scholar, and she’s full of an unbridled joy. Her non-plan just became a concrete one, and the impossible situation is now very impossible. Will, on the other hand, is angered by the fury of betrayal, knowing that he was probably set up by the lawyer so that the blonde-haired man could apprehend him. He’s also deeply disappointed in himself. He murdered a man. How do you deal with that on top of everything else?
It’s because of this that he appears so closed-off and inattentive, something that Lyra picks up immediately. After she deflects some possible negative attention from a couple policemen, it’s not long before Will and Lyra start lashing out at each other. At heart, both of them believe they’re the best at being “invisible,” at disappearing in crowds and not drawing attention to themselves in negative ways. Again, the theme of culture clashing comes into play: Lyra comes from a world where she uses her words to convince others that she knows what she’s doing. Will comes from a world where silence and stillness work best. It’s actually a pretty absurd conversation once you think about it. But aren’t these arguments always like that?
However, things tip a bit more towards Will when Lyra makes an offhand comment about him coming back to his universe because of his father. Up until this point, they’d not really discussed Will’s father much, so he’s curious as to how she knows. I honestly hadn’t thought about the alethiometer as a matter of personal privacy, but Will does make a good point. It is sort of like spying in a way, even though Lyra doesn’t intend it to be a way to invade Will’s life. She’s always viewed it as a way of reading people and situations. On top of that, there’s more of this idea of the alethiometer as its own entity, one that openly converses with Lyra, but only to an extent. She defends her use of the device to Will because she did not trust him when they first met. After traveling to a parallel world, I must also admit that it’s practical for her to use the alethiometer as she does. Who else can she trust aside from Pantalaimon? She has no allies or no friends and she’s in a strange world that is nothing like her own. What is she supposed to do?
Even though it has a hint of pragmatism, the two children decide it’s best for them to trust each other. I love that Lyra tells Will she’ll never give him, and in a poignant reflection on the recent past, Lyra reveals to Will that she thought she was saving her friend, but she ended up betraying him. She’s not going to do that again.
Will, exhausted by the journey he’s been on, agrees. I think he does trust Lyra in his heart, but I do get the sense that he’s just tired and he wants to do anything else but having a heavy conversation like this. His suggestion to go to the movies, both to hide and get food, seemed strange at first to me, until I realized it was the perfect place for him to take a nap. At the same time, it’s a joyful culture shock for Lyra, who had no concept of what a cinema was in this world. It’s especially great that she is SO into it, cheering and laughing along with the audience. Oh, while Will sleeps. BLESS HIM.
After viewing a second movie (I LOVE SEEING TWO MOVIES IN A ROW seriously this book speaks to my soul), it seems like Lyra feels obligated to return some of the trust and kindness to Will, so she decides to come completely clean and tell him everything that has brought her to this point. It’s almost a silent apology for reading into his life with the alethiometer in a way.
Plus…it’s all just so fantastical, isn’t it? I mean, here are two pre-teens discussing an alternate universe after they both had just traveled to one, and then traveling back to it. i’m drawing hearts around this book already omg MARK AND THE SUBTLE KNIFE, SITTING IN A TREE.
I can’t claim to understand what happens next, though. I can talk and gab all I want about the fascinating cultural backgrounds of Will and Lyra, but I am flat out stumped by the kids of Ci’gazze THROWING ROCKS AT A CAT. It’s another one of those things that Pullman does, keeping the answer hidden just out of view. When Will intervenes to save the cat, Angelica, the girl from earlier, is quick to declare that it’s clear he and Lyra are not from this place. But there was no mention of cats earlier! Are they like…harbingers of Satan or something? Is this why John Ashcroft believes they’re evil???
Well, I don’t think it’s something Pullman is just going to ignore; we’re bound to find out what it means. But it might not even be that important, you know….SINCE SOMEONE IS WATCHING LYRA AND WILL FROM THE CREEPY OLD TOWER. Ugh, another possible foil to their plans? This is all complicated enough as it is.
The real treat of this chapter, though, is the fact that we get to read the letters in the leather case. I’m glad that Pullman included them in full, instead of having Will just read them and summarize them for us. As revealing as John Perry’s letters are, they are also really confusing. That’s sort of what Pullman goes for in this book so far: He gives us an answer and, in the process, everything makes less sense than it did before. (Hello, LOST writers.)
The letters start off innocently enough, and John Parry’s tone is one of an excited academic. Unfortunately, it’s confirmed right away that the man with the balloon is named Nelson, so there goes my theory that it’s Lee Scoresby’s double. IT WAS A GOOD THEORY, OK. But this doesn’t matter! Because John Parry outright admits to his wife what he’s looking for up in Alaska: the anomaly! Which, he learns from some local folks is a door to the spirit world.
Wait. wait. Will’s father was searching for a door to a parallel world? LIKE THE ONE WILL STUMBLED THROUGH ALREADY?!?!?!
OH MY GOD THIS BOOK.
Just….HOW. HOW. I can barely wrap my mind around this. What are the odds that Will’s father would disappear searching for something Will just accidentally found?
This just continues to get weirder and weirder. John Parry reveals that the ballon-owning man who is traveling with him also appears to be searching for the window to the other world. I like that Pullman has constructed these less as random occurrences and instead as deeply ingrained in the mythological fabric of the cultures that live in the north. Urban legends and campfire stories abound with rumors of where the anomaly is, and now John Parry is certain he’ll find it. Which…I don’t know what makes him so certain, but it probably helps now that he knows Nelson has the same end goal as him, even if they don’t outright talk about it.
The third and final letter that Will reads confirms a lot of things and then simultaneously opens a billion other doors. John Parry discovers that Nelson is a lot more serious than he initially realized. The Ministry of Defense is funding Nelson’s expedition, and the man has a radiation suit in his balloon. Does he believe the window to the parallel world gives off radiation? Or is he looking for something else?
For Will, though, this letter is an eerie and fantastical parallel to his own life. I cannot imagine what it’s like to read a letter from your father, written over a decade ago, that describes a window into a parallel world exactly like the one he just climbed through the day before. It is a surreal coincidence, but for me, it provides such an amazing character convergence between Will and his father. The only thing I’m worried about is Will experiencing the same sense of defeat and disappointment as Lyra. I can’t ignore how similar John Parry and Lord Asriel are, so now my brain wanders: Is Pullman building Will’s life to have the same tragic end? Is his father not the hero he thinks him to be? Will’s already experienced so much heartbreak and pain, and I worry that he wouldn’t be able to stand it.
For now, though, I’ll appreciate what this does for Will. It’s like a recharge to his soul. It provides him with a connection to a father he’s never seen, and it almost validates all of the pain he’s gone through in his life. For the moment, it gives Will joy, and I think it’s only fair that I feel that, too.