Saturday, March 8, 2014

Philip Pullman's Subtle Knife

Spring break started today, and over the next several days I hope to finish several books that I started earlier this year.  It's not quite spring cleaning, but it is a tidying-up phase.

First up this morning is Phil Pullman's The Subtle Knife, the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Simply put, I thought it was excellent. When I started the first book in the trilogy, The Golden Compass, several years ago, I found it difficult to get into it, and wondered what I was missing that others were seeing.  It was included on the Guardian's 100 greatest novels of all time list (under the UK title Northern Lights), so I figured I was reading it at the wrong time or in the wrong way.  I put it aside, and picked it up again last year.  The experience was completely different this time, and I started to see what I had missed before.

But I found The Subtle Knife even more compelling than The Golden Compass, and I'm excited about reading the final book in the trilogy soon.  The story moves along briskly, in large part because Pullman is economical when he sketches a scene or describes an event.  He doesn't overwhelm the reader with information.  We get just the right amount of information--through description or dialogue--to see what's happening and understand how things are unfolding.  And yet, at no point did I feel like Pullman's economy made the novel was simplistic.  I think one of the great gifts of a writer is having the ability to employ successfully simple syntax to create complex ideas.  Pullman clearly has this gift, as does Willa Cather, who I've written about recently.

Another element of the success of this novel is the fact that the outcome is not clear.  Unless I missed something, the first two books don't make it clear where good and evil reside.  Clearly Mrs. Coulter is evil, but it's not clear that Lord Asriel is good.  We know Lyra and Will are good, but what is their mission exactly?  I find this more interesting than Lord of the Rings, for instance, where the reader knows from the beginning who will triumph; the only question is how that will happen.  In this trilogy, I am less certain about that, and that makes it all the more interesting.

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