Cover The Subtle Knife: A cartoon boy holding a cat and girl petting a cheetah

About the Book

Title: The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials #2)
Published: 1997
Series: His Dark Materials
Swoonworthy Scale: 1

Cover Story: I See What You Did There
BFF Charm: Platinum x2
Talky Talk: Not A Bridge Book
Bonus Factors: Creepy City, Magical Objects
Anti-Bonus Factor: Character Deaths
Relationship Status: In Love

Careful, Sweetie: spoilers! This is the second book in the His Dark Materials series, so if you haven’t read the previous one, you should probably hop back in the TARDIS and go curl up in the library by the pool with the first book before continuing.

Cover Story: I See What You Did There

This cover totally makes it look like Will has his own dæmon, but it’s a lie. I DO wonder which cat-bro he’s holding, because Will’s entire life trajectory was forever changed in the course of a night in large part because of help from two cute lil’ tabby cats. He’s also described as having black hair and dark, straight brows, with fierce eyes that are hard to meet for too long. This kid looks super harmless, but nostalgia requires me to use this cover instead of the million other generic ones that feature…a knife. Yawn.

The Deal:

Will Parry is a murderer. It may have been an accident, and those men shouldn’t have been searching through his mother’s belongings anyway, but, still. Now Will is a twelve-year-old on the run, desperate, with nowhere to go. So when he sees a strange patch of air above some grass near a roundabout, a patch where, from certain angles, he can see a whole other world, he doesn’t hesitate. An alternate dimension is the perfect hide-out!

The last we saw Lyra Silvertongue, she was stepping through the hole her father had ripped into the sky, determined to find out the truth behind Dust. Except what she and Pan have really been doing is just wandering around an empty land, lost, and she’s kind of sick of that. When she meets Will and the alethiometer demands they work together to accomplish their goals, Lyra knows she’s found her purpose again. And a girl with a purpose is a formidable thing.

BFF Charm: Platinum x2

BFF platinum charm

Lyra is a bit more subdued in this book; she’s seen a lot in a short time and the death of her friend, Roger, still weighs heavily on her mind, which curbs her wilder impulses. I love wild Lyra, and I am sad for her because this newfound caution came at such a steep price, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing for her to learn a bit of restraint. She’s much more willing to listen to someone else’s opinions now, though if you push her too much, or take too long figuring things out, she’s still a saucy minx, and I adore her for it.

BFF platinum charm

And then in this book we meet Will, and I. Love. Will. I want to take him up in my arms and squish him and get his mom the help she needs so he won’t have to worry anymore, gosh darn it. He’s such a serious mini-adult, wiiiiith a bit of an anger problem, but, honestly, who wouldn’t have some rage issues to work through after the life that he’s been handed (a mentally ill mom and a father who disappeared on an expedition when he was a baby)? He’s such a natural-born leader that even Lyra will look to him for advice. Will was one of my first book crushes, so I may be a little biased, but the guy’s a boss. 

Swoonworthy Scale: 2

When I read this book as a child I was VERY INTERESTED in a relationship forming between Will and Lyra. As an adult, I know there’s more important things going on (also, they’re like twelve). I’ll be honest—I reread this about two months ago now, so I’m struggling to recall if I remembered any “moments” (it can be hard to separate out what I know of the entire trilogy to what’s only in this book). Lyra, the girl who wears her heart on her sleeve, is obviously very taken with Will’s steadying influence, but for Will’s part he’s having quite a rough few weeks, and is simply trying to get up every morning and do the best for himself and his mom. We shall have more to discuss next book!

Talky Talk: Not A Bridge Book

After the whirlwind of fantasy moments in The Golden Compass—witches, dæmons, and talking bears, oh my!—The Subtle Knife can feel, tonally, like a completely different series. Will is from our world, a place without magic or dæmons, and much of the story takes place there. We also split our focus from not only Lyra’s and Will’s perspectives, but to other old friends like witch-leader Serafina Pekkala and Texas balloon-flyer Lee Scoresby, who are trying to suss out where Lyra has gotten to and how they can help. We go deeper into the mythology of Dust by focusing on Dr. Mary Malone, who’s work is at a stand-still until she meets Lyra. And Lord Asriel, for his part, ups the ante by going all in on a bonkers plan to challenge the Authority himself. I personally never had a problem keeping pace with these changes; it felt like a natural progression as Lyra’s worldview expanded and she began to see beyond her own problems. Although not that much shorter than the first book, The Subtle Knife felt like it FLEW by, with much more emphasis on plot than world-building.

Bonus Factor: Creepy City

The city of Cittàgazze from His Dark Materials, a vertical city with a high tower at the top of the hill

Will and Lyra hide out in Cittàgazze, an abandoned beachfront city filled with invisible creatures called Spectres that only bother adults. And when I say bother, I mean they suck your soul out of your body. Fun! Child me thought this place was the coolest (obvs before the discovery of the creatures) and then the creepiest. It would be fun go around and take whatever you want, but after a time it would get quite eerie, especially since everything was left—unfinished plates of food on the table, laundry still hanging out to dry—as it was when the adults abandoned it.

Bonus Factor: Magical Objects

The subtle knife stuck in the ground as Will looks at it

I don’t want to give away too much, but the subtle knife is a pretty freaking cool magical object, and the exploration of its creation and what that meant to the story in this book and beyond fascinated me. We also get to see more of the alethiometer doing its thing, which delights me, because who doesn’t want a truth-telling device at their fingertips?

Anti-Bonus Factor: Character Deaths

Meme Boromir from Lord of the Rings saying "one does not simply get over a fictional character's death"

I’m pretty sure I willfully forget that this particular death happens every single time I read this series, which also means I’m surprise punched in the gut when it appears. The addition of dæmons make the entire venture that much sadder (as they both say goodbye to each other and he/she fades away…sob). The other character death is more frustrating and bittersweet, for various other reasons I won’t spoil. 

Relationship Status: In Love

There are wedding bells in our future, Book. The things I love about you are pieces of a larger story, but you are compelling and important in your own right.

FTC Full Disclosure: I purchased my own copy of this book. I received neither money nor peanut butter cups in exchange for this review. The Subtle Knife is available now.

Stephanie (she/her) is an avid reader who moonlights at a college and calls Orlando home. Stephanie loves watching television, reading DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.