Synopses & Reviews
Published in 40 countries, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – The Golden Compass
, The Subtle Knife
, and The Amber Spyglass
– has graced the New York Times
, Wall Street Journal
, San Francisco Chronicle
, Book Sense
, and Publishers Weekly
The Golden Compass forms the first part of a story in three volumes. The first volume is set in a world like ours, but different in many ways. The second volume is set partly in the world we know. The third moves between many worlds.
In The Golden Compass, readers meet 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua, a precocious orphan growing up within the precincts of Jordan College in Oxford, England. It quickly becomes clear that Lyra's Oxford is not precisely like our own—nor is her world. In Lyra's world, everyone has a personal dæmon, a lifelong animal familiar. This is a world in which science, theology and magic are closely intertwined.
The Subtle Knife is the second part of the trilogy that began with The Golden Compass. That first book was set in a world like ours, but different. This book begins in our own world.
In The Subtle Knife, readers are introduced to Will Parry, a young boy living in modern-day Oxford, England. Will is only twelve years old, but he bears the responsibilities of an adult. Following the disappearance of his explorer-father, John Parry, during an expedition in the North, Will became parent, provider and protector to his frail, confused mother. And it's in protecting her that he becomes a murderer, too: he accidentally kills a man who breaks into their home to steal valuable letters written by John Parry. After placing his mother in the care of a kind friend, Will takes those letters and sets off to discover the truth about his father.
The Amber Spyglass brings the intrigue of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife to a heartstopping close, marking the third and final volume as the most powerful of the trilogy. Along with the return of Lyra, Will, Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, Dr. Mary Malone, and Iorek Byrnison the armored bear, The Amber Spyglass introduces a host of new characters: the Mulefa, mysterious wheeled creatures with the power to see Dust; Gallivespian Lord Roke, a hand-high spy-master to Lord Asriel; and Metatron, a fierce and mighty angel. And this final volume brings startling revelations, too: the painful price Lyra must pay to walk through the land of the dead, the haunting power of Dr. Malone's amber spyglass, and the names of who will live—and who will die—for love. And all the while, war rages with the Kingdom of Heaven, a brutal battle that—in its shocking outcome—will reveal the secret of Dust.
"These first two volumes of [the] His Dark Materials trilogy are, simply, magnificent. Pullman has the power of a master fantasist. He imbues an age-old classical struggle with a new mythic vision, the depth and realization of which are staggering." Jennifer Fakolt, VOYA
"As in the first book, the stakes are high and the action is rapid and occasionally violent....The Subtle Knife ends with even more of a cliff-hanger than The Golden Compass, and fans will eagerly await book three for the final resolution." School Library Journal
"Just as quick-moving and unputdownable as [The Golden Compass]....The mysteries deepen and the wonders grow even more extravagant." The Washington Post Book World
"The powerful second installment....[V]intage Pullman..." Kirkus Reviews
"Though this second volume almost succumbs to middle book syndrome, Pullman...avoids it, adroitly, by force of theme....Phillip Pullman measures up; his work is devilishly inventive....Put Philip Pullman on the shelf with Ursula K. LeGuin, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander..." Gregory Maguire, The New York Times Book Review
Lyra finds herself in a shimmering, haunted underworld Cittàgazze, where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. But she is not without allies: 12-year-old Will Parry, fleeing for his life after taking another's, has also stumbled into this strange new realm.
On a perilous journey from world to world, Lyra and Will discover an object of devastating power. And with every step, they move closer to an even greater threat and the shattering truth of their own destiny.
- Ideal for the fantasy/sci-fi market: new striking, commercial paperback look.- The trilogy has been showered with awards: Whitbread Award, Booker Prize nominee, Carnegie Medal, ALA Notable, Guardian Fiction Prize, Parents Choice Gold Award, Horn Book Fanfare, Booklist Editors' Choice, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year- Over 2 million copies sold in the U.S.alone: Pullman's trilogy is truly a modern classic.
About the Author
Philip Pullman has won many distinguished prizes, including the Carnegie Medal for The Golden Compass
(and the reader-voted "Carnegie of Carnegies" for the best children's book of the past seventy years); the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year Award for The Amber Spyglass
; a Booker Prize long-list nomination (The Amber Spyglass
); Parents' Choice Gold Awards (The Subtle Knife
and The Amber Spyglass
); and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, in honor of his body of work. In 2004, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Philip Pullman is the author of many books for young readers, including two volumes related to the His Dark Materials trilogy: Lyra's Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North. He lives in Oxford, England. To learn more, please visit www.philip-pullman.com and www.hisdarkmaterials.com.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author information that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of The Subtle Knife
. The Subtle Knife
is Book Two of Philip Pullman's trilogy "His Dark Materials". In Book One, The Golden Compass,
young Lyra Belacqua journeys through "a universe like ours but different in many ways." The most striking difference between Lyra's world and ours is the existence of daemons. These spirit-creatures, physical manifestations of the human soul, can change shape until their human companions reach adolescence. Then each daemon settles into the animal form that best reflects the inner nature of its human counterpart.
In The Golden Compass, Lyra discovers that her mother, Mrs. Coulter, is conducting experiments in which children are severed from their daemons, turning them into emotionless, almost inhuman beings. Mrs. Coulter and her colleagues are doing this to learn more about a substance called "Dust, " which seems to accumulate on humans when they reach maturity. While many fear Dust, both Mrs. Coulter and Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, see it as the source of great power. The Golden Compass concludes with Lord Asriel harnessing the power of Dust to create an opening in the atmosphere of his world, forging a bridge to another universe. This he fearlessly crosses, leaving Mrs. Coulter behind. Lyra perceives that Dust is good and vows to discover its secrets with the help of her "golden compass", or alethiometer, a truth-seeking device. And so Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, follow Lord Asriel into the other world.
The Subtle Knife begins in our own world, where Will Parry, driven by curiosity about his mysterious, missing father and concern for his vulnerable, disturbed mother, accidentally kills an intruder. While fleeing, he finds a "window" into a sunlit otherworld. What could be a better refuge than a hidden universe? But this universe is a strange, empty place: a city that seems to have been abandoned in such haste that food is left rotting on plates at a sidewalk cafe. The inhabitants of the city, Cittágazze, have fled from the invading Specters, ghostlike creatures that devour the souls of adults. But Specters are harmless and invisible to children, and soon Will meets another fugitive child in Cittágazze: Lyra. Although he does not know it, their lives are soon to become forever intertwined when Lyra's alethiometer gives her one simple command: Help Will find his father.
The richly imagined world of Book One seems almost quiet and simple when compared to the turmoil of Book Two. Here "Dust" is called "dark matter" and has been joined by a myriad of other complex phenomena, including the Specters and bene elim (angels). One protagonist has been replaced by two, Lyra and Will. Most significant of all, Lyra's truth-giving compass seems to pale in comparison to the power of Will's new acquisition, the subtle knife, the Æsahættr, the knife that will cut ANYTHING. What can it mean to be the bearer of such an instrument?
1. What is wrong with Will's mother? Are her concerns real, imagined, or both? Why and how does Will protect her?
2. What does it mean when Lyra assumes Will's daemon is "inside"? Do the people in Will's world, our world, have daemons at all?
3. Why does Will's being a murderer enable Lyra to trust him? What characters do Serafina Pekkala and Lee Scoresby decide to trust, and is their trust warranted? In what other ways does trust play an important role in this novel?
4. How has Will learned to make himself unnoticed by others? Relate this to the witches' ability to make themselves invisible.
5. How do the Shadows that communicate with Lyra through the computer relate to dark matter and/or Dust? If Lyra can understand the Shadows as she understands the alethiometer, then is the computer also acting as a truth-giving device? What is the real origin of the Shadows' messages?
6. On page 188, Giacomo Paradisi tells Will the rules for bearing the subtle knife. Why do you think Will must "never open without closing"? What did Paradisi mean by "a base purpose"? Compare these formal guidelines to the instinctive rules Lyra obeys when using the alethiometer.
7. Why is it significant that the possessors of the alethiometer and the subtle knife are children? What is the difference between innocence and experience? What has happened to Mrs. Coulter's solders who have undergone intercision?
8. Lord Asriel is mentioned several times throughout the story, yet we never directly see him. He is planning a war that he cannot win without an object that he does not know exists. What does Lord Asriel symbolize in The Subtle Knife?
9. What did the "Cave" mean when it told Dr. Malone that she must be "the serpent"? Where do you think she is at the end of the story? Where is Lyra?
10. In what way can a knife that divides pathways between worlds and can sever bone, rock, and steel be called "subtle"?
11. DISCUSSION TOPICS IF YOU HAVE READ THE GOLDEN COMPASS AND THE SUBTLE KNIFE
In Book One, Lyra is clearly a leader. In Book Two, she seems to have become a follower, a servant to Will's cause. Who is more powerful, Will or Lyra? Whose cause is more important? Is it the same cause?
12. Is the "psychic death" caused by severing the same as that caused by the Specters? Compare Tony Makarios and the servants at Bolvangar (Book One) to Tullio's actions after Will takes the subtle knife and the final thoughts of Lena Feldt (Book Two). Relate these to the "natural" deaths suffered by Lee Scoresby and John Parry.
13. Armored bears, witches, severed children and adults, cliff-ghasts, Spectres, and angels are beings with spiritual qualities different from humans. Why does the authorintroduce so many creatures with alternative soul-states?
14. By the end of The Subtle Knife, we have learned that both Will's father, John Parry/Stanislaus Grumman, and Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, are powerful men who have traveled between worlds. Yet one is called a shaman while the other is preparing to be a general. What is the relationship between these two men? Compare it to the relationship between Will and Lyra.
15. The Golden Compass takes place in a "closed" world where Lyra finds guidance through her newly-found alethiometer. In The Subtle Knife, boundaries between worlds have been broken, Lyra loses her alethiometer, and Will becomes the reluctant bearer of the knife. Explore the many parallels and opposites established between The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife. How is the dualistic imagery of Lyra's and Will's worlds counterpointed by Cittaágazze?
16. Citing a passage from John Miltons Paradise Lost, Philip Pullman has named his trilogy "His Dark Materials." How might this citation, and the novels' emerging themes, relate to the following quote:
"The prince of darkness is a gentleman." - William Shakespeare (King Lear)