In the sixth chapter of The Subtle Knife, Lee Scoresby continues to make progress in determining where Dr. Grumman is–and what he was searching for–while Serafina Pekkala continues on in the parallel world in her search for Lyra and Lord Asriel. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Subtle Knife.
CHAPTER SIX: LIGHTED FLIERS
I’m really enjoying just how long these chapters are. It’s been easier for me to write reviews while reading from an eBook, which means that I don’t have that familiar concept of knowing how far I am into a book. (The percentage at the bottom of my Kindle app means basically nothing to me. I really do love the feeling of progressing through a book.) This method is just much more convenient for me, since I can search books for character names, places, or specific words, and it’s a much easier setup as well. Since I can’t feel how far I am, it adds an unexpected and pleasant sensation to this process: I have no idea where I am. It’s slightly disorienting, but that’s a compliment. I don’t know if I’m close to the end or in the middle or if I’m nearing the end of the chapter, so I just have to let myself enjoy the ride. That is a great feeling, and it certainly helps that the journey Pullman is sending me on is fascinating and exciting at the same time.
We’re back to another chapter that does not feature one bit of narration from either Will or Lyra; instead, we are dropped in the worlds of Lee Scoresby and Serafina. I was intrigued by their characters in The Golden Compass, but I never expected that we’d get to see so much of this world–ahem, worlds–through their eyes, and it’s a great addition to this epic story. We start off with Lee Scoresby, and Pullman does an excellent job conveying the culture that Lee comes from and how it is so different from the other characters we’ve seen in the book.
Lee is an American from the south, and I adore that he’s not just some ridiculous stereotype of what people in the American south are portrayed in the media. I was lucky enough during my years of working for Buzznet to travel fairly extensively throughout the U.S. while on tour with bands, and, aside from a few nonsensical and bizarre events, I always had a fantastic time in the South. While I’m certainly no expert, since I don’t live there, it was clear to me that people who grew up in the various societies there had a few things in common, and I think those features are represented in Lee. He is a plain-talker: he says what he means, but not in the same way as Serafina or the gyptians. It’s a method of conveying the basic sense of respect that one should extend to your fellow neighbor. It’s a no-nonsense culture, one of hospitality and honor. Reading the conversation that opens chapter six between and an old Texan acquaintance, Sam Cansino, reminds me of this.
It’s also the way they trade information that fascinates me. It’s over a meal and a drink. It’s perfectly natural in this culture to inquire about such things, too. As Pullman describes, it’s even more natural because of the strange “changes” taking place in the world as well. Everyone wants to know something, and everyone knows something knew. It’s this interesting congenial gossip that spreads through the traders; it’s not a malicious form of backtalk or anything, but about keeping others in the loop.
Lee’s goal is to find Grumman, who he believes in his heart to still be alive. The stories that he learns (and we learn through osmosis) paint the man in a fantastical light. (This is now the third such man whose reputation precedes him. I sense a pattern. How are they all related?) The Tartars appeared to have adopted him as a shaman of sorts, drilling his skull as is customary in their society, so that Dust may enter the mind. We still haven’t quite learned why the Tartars hold such a reverence for Dust, though, aside from believing it allows the Spirit world in. I’m guessing that the Tartars have actually been traveling to parallel worlds long before Lord Asriel or John Parry have.
But that doesn’t mean the stories give a monolithic view of Grumman. He may have had an osprey demon. He may have been shot outright. He may have been beheaded. He may have been buried under an avalanche. Unlike John Parry or Lord Asriel, who have more concrete facts established in their lives, Dr. Grumman is a myth. We know he existed, but the facts start to blur once you start analyzing the last time he was confirmed seen. However, it seems clear that, like many others, he was quite interested in the northern lights and in “ancient things.” What’s the tie to the ancient world, though? What happened so long ago that brought about all of this interest in Dust?
The conversation moves on to the bizarre events caused by Lord Asriel, and there’s more talk of the fog. I still can’t figure out what it is, but I’m assuming that the parallel world next to this one, Cittágazze, is plagued with fog often, and that fog is now creeping over into this world. A seal hunter explains to Lee and the other men in the hotel how he was able to catch a look straight into another world.
I seriously cannot imagine how weird that has to be.
Lee continues further to the north, to an observatory where allegedly he can learn more about what Grumman was searching for. On the way, the sledge driver makes a surprising statement: The sky has opened up before. Well, way before, “many thousand generation” ago. It caused spirits to travel between worlds, for land to move, for ice to melt and form again, and it was only repaired after a big “spirit war.” Is this the repetition of a cycle? Is this what happened 33,000 years ago? I’d actually be pretty stoked if this book provided an alternate origin theory not only for Dust, but for humans. Was that event something that had to do with the first group of humans on Earth?
The events at the observatory help take this story in a new direction. Firstly, though, I love that the astronomers present are simply excited to have Lee here, knowing he might be able to give them more news about the weirdness affecting the world. They all knew Grumman (or at least knew of him) as well, and seemed eager to talk about whatever sort of legacy he’d left behind. It’s pretty much confirmed he was looking for civilizations of humans far older than history allowed, and we get that thirty thousand number again. Something happened that upset the earth’s magnetic field (like the event caused by Lord Asriel) that may have frozen entire civilizations when the earth’s axis physically moved. But the strangest thing to me is the fact that one astronomer, Yoruba, says that Grumman just “appeared.” No one knew of history before he made a name for himself.
I have ideas in my brain. Grumman must have come from another world, right? RIGHT?
However, all of this discovery doesn’t come without a consequence, and Pullman clues us into the Magisterium’s further influence into the world. We know they run everything in this world, and I realize now that opposing the Church is a death sentence of sorts, and it’s here I learn just how pervasive the organization is. Amongst the astronomers is a lone Skraeling who has not contributed to the conversation at all, and Lee notices a ring with the Church’s symbol on the man’s finger.
Every philosophical research establishment, so he’d heard, had to include on its staff a representative of the Magisterium, to act as a censor and suppress the news of any heretical discoveries.
Well, damn. I like that so far, Pullman has shown how organizations of science can be both oppressive and oppressing. We’ve seen how Lord Asriel’s science disrupted the whole world; we know the scientific work done at Bolvangar killed children. And now we see how genuine work to expand the knowledge of humanity can be hidden and suppressed because of the Church. I’m glad it’s not as simple as SCIENCE IS GOOD ALL THE TIME, because that’s just now how things work.
I also adore that Lee, once he comes to this realization, immediately begins trolling the Skraeling, innocently asking if this all has to do with Dust. Of course, the Skraeling dismisses this as nonsense, and Lee already knows that is all the confirmation he needs. Unfortunately, ten minutes after he parts from the astronomers, the Skraeling’s dæmon launches an attack on Hester. An unsuccessful one, I might add, since Lee is able to shoot the man in the leg with his revolver.
That’s when Lee learns the man has already sent a messenger bird to the Magisterium and now Lee is an enemy of the church. His heretical talk will be the death of him, and the Skraeling launches into Biblical verses of condemnation, knowing he will die a martyr’s death; he even refuses Lee’s help in stopping the bleeding.
So Lee is now a marked man. He knows the Church has been searching for Grumman too. What did that man do??? Hester, in a wonderfully clever decision, tells Lee to steal the man’s ring. Seriously, how could things get worse for Lee? He might as well take it and hope it’ll be to good use. (I’m already guessing it will; Pullman’s not the one to include small details like this and not use them.)
We’re left wondering what’s next for Lee. His sledge driver recommends that Lee travel to meet with the tribe who initiated him as a shaman to learn as more as he can, though the driver is bizarrely ambiguous about the whole thing. It’s also something to look forward to, both to move the plot forward, and because I am excited to see how Pullman builds the world of the Jopari. (I think that’s the correct name? Actually…probably not. Is that Grumman’s new name? Or the name of the tribe? I AM CONFUSED.)
Anyway, the narration switches over to Serafina, who has led her fellow witches into the weird, parallel world of Cittágazze. Almost immediately, we’re given a full and proper introduction to what the Specters are, and it is most certainly far worse than I expected. The spectral beings are earth-bound, according to Serafina, and unfortunately, the witches have to witness an attack from the Specters. It’s fascinating to me that Pullman does such a good job showing us how the witches’ culture is so counter to what they witness here. Since they do not understand what the Specters are, they don’t get why the children don’t run away, why others do, and why a person would offer a child up to one of these beings; this would be an act of heresy to the witches, of course, but that’s because their culture has no concept of these things.
What’s absolutely terrifying to me is the image of a father having his life sucked out of him by a Specter (HELLO DEMENTOR) and turning to watch his son drown with complete indifference in his face. Even for Serafina, it’s too much, and she intervenes to save the child as the father merely stands in the river as if nothing has happened at all.
This is nightmare fuel. For real, this is some unsettling shit. The image of an entire group of adults, standing and sitting aimlessly as their children wail and cry, is certainly one of the more disturbing things I’ve read. How did this world come to have these beings in them???
Serafina decides to confront one of the men who initially ran away when the Specters arrived, Joachim Lorenz. The man informs her of the reality of the world, where one man and one woman must be on horseback in a traveling party, and they must retreat upon sight of the Specters, lest the children be left without any adults to look after them. what kind of life is that this is deeply awful. And then, to add to all this weirdness, Joachim tells Serafina that he saw angels heading for the “Pole” the other night. THERE ARE ANGELS IN THIS WORLD. What the fuck?
Serafina and Joachim team up, with the witches protecting the group from Specters in exchange for Joachim giving Serafina information about the world and the angels. The horrors of Cittágazze weren’t always there, they learn. There are elements of this parallel universe that are similar to ours, like the nations Eireland and Corea, though they’re obviously spelled differently. But something–it’s unknown–happened three hundred years ago in this world that brought about the Specters. There’s talk of the Guild of the Torre degli Angeli bringing it about. (Is that this world’s version of the Church?) They are the organization that has found windows to parallel worlds, and these thieves (or magpies, as they’re sometimes referred to as) steal things to bring back to their own, and it’s assumed that they brought the Specters in with them. If they did, then it is pretty damn arrogant of them to continue stealing from other worlds. Couldn’t they make the situation worse?
This whole conversation is a wonderful bit of info-dumping exposition because it highlights something that is so rare in these kind of stories: PEOPLE ASK QUESTIONS. In fact, that’s something that’s existed since the beginning of The Golden Compass. I’m not saying there’s not miscommunication or concealment here at all. I’m just saying that it’s refreshing that these characters experience weird things, and then they actually ask other characters what’s going on. Thus, Serafina asks Joachim about angels. In a way, I suppose they’re very much like what angels are in our world, at least in the Christian sense. They’re spiritual beings who bring messages from heaven, they have wings, their “concerns” are different than humans, and at one time, they bred with people as well. Here in Cittágazze, some sort of war or battle played out during the time of the thickest fog, and Joachim himself managed to catch site of a wounded angel. So they’re definitely real in this book, but what purpose do they serve? Joachim suggests some sort of war in heaven, like the one thousands of years before, but no one can be sure.
So what does Pullman do? He has Ruta Skadi FLY WITH A GROUP OF ANGELS. He switches the narrative point of view to a side character we’d seen for like…HALF A CHAPTER. Oh my god I love this so much. How rad are the angels??? I mean…look, I don’t care if I’m an atheist, this is spectacular. WITCHES AND ANGELS IN THE SAME STORY.
We learn the angels are following a “call” of some sort, possibly from Lord Asriel? Ruta is hopeful enough to believe that this is where she’s supposed to go, so she follows them on their trip to the Pole. It’s yet another chance for Pullman to stretch out the narrative and we get to see this all from Ruta’s perspective. She feels a sense of pride, almost victory, at the idea that she could command the attention of these angels, and it’s something that I don’t understand, but I’m glad it’s here. It’s one of the ways that Pullman gives us insight into the many worlds he introduces, and by doing so, it makes it easier to sort it all out.
I was also excited that Ruta and the angels passed into another world. The prospect that Pullman may have just taken us into a fourth universe makes me want to collapse with joy. Even better, an angel confirms that Lord Asriel is indeed in this world, and he is BUILDING A FORTRES. WHAT?!?!?! What for??? Even weirder, Asriel appears to have called not only angels, but zeppelins and all sorts of flying machinery that I cannot begin to comprehend.
I don’t get the chance to. As Ruta and the angels descend on the fortress, we’re left hanging. BLAST IT. I WANT TO KNOW!!!