The second novel in Pullman's controversial His Dark Materials trilogy, The Subtle Knife introduces a new lead, twelve-year-old Will, a boy from our world on the run after *accidentally* murdering an intruder. Escaping through a window between the worlds, he meets Lyra in Cittagazze, a crossroads between the world, a city haunted by the Spectres of Indifference who prey on adults' souls and whose only fear is of a mysterious object hidden in the ancient and enigmatic Tower of Angels.
There's quite a lot going on in The Subtle Knife, and none of it really adds up to a story in its own right. For her part, Lyra is looking for answers about Dust, the substance her Church so fears; Will, on the other hand, is looking for his father. It makes for a rather directionless tale: mainly our protagonists appear to be wandering around at random for much of the novel, hoping that they stumble across something useful.
That's not to say it's a bad book: Pullman's writing is still as clear and yet as fantastical as ever, with those almost fairy-tale-like flashes of feeling that crop up so suddenly in a page of dialogue:
And each of them saw their own expression on the other's face. Will remembered that moment for a long time afterward.
The supporting cast are, again, convincingly determined, with Serafina Pekkala the witch and aeronaut Lee Scoresby taking significant roles. There's a real feeling here of powers massing out of sight, of individuals being swept up in events beyond their control and even their ken, of people simply doing their best wherever they can. Yet this does feel more like set-up for the third book than anything else.
Again, that's not to say that I didn't like The Subtle Knife. It's just that, like The Two Towers or Shift or Inkspell, it's on its way somewhere else, rather than sticking around to actually talk to us.