- "What is he? A friend or an enemy?" "He is a murderer."
- —Blurb quote[src]
The Subtle Knife is the second book in the His Dark Materials Trilogy. It follows on from Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) by adding a new protagonist Will Parry, who, around the same time as Lyra Silvertongue discovers a window to gain access to Cittàgazze, a world haunted by Spectres and a city inhabited entirely by children. During this book Lyra starts getting a bit less selfish and begins to realise some of the true intricacies of the alethiometer. This book also deals a lot with the matter of Dust or dark matter. It also begins to explain about Lord Asriel's rebellion against The Authority and the church. This book sets a much darker tone to the series and adds more meaning to the characters' actions in Northern Lights.
Lyra and Will learn that the city is called Ci' gazze (they later learn that this is an informal rendering and that the full name is Cittàgazze), and that it is haunted by thousands of beings called Spectres. Children (pre-adolescent) cannot see the Spectres; adults can, making them vulnerable and therefore afraid to live in any city occupied by these predators.
Lyra and Will, searching for information, return to the Oxford of Will's world. Lyra visits a museum, where she learns that humans began to attract an increased quantity of the mysterious substance called Dust approximately thirty-five thousand years before then. Little does she know that as she consults the alethiometer, she is being watched by Sir Charles Latrom, who is actually Lord Boreal. Lyra, guided by her alethiometer, seeks help from a physicist called Mary Malone, who studies dark matter via a computer that measures the level of the so-called "Shadow particles" around certain objects. Astonishingly, "Shadows" are attracted to objects that are made by human beings more than to completely inanimate objects, and appear to be sentient in their own right. The alethiometer informs Lyra that the alethiometer itself, Mary's computer, and the I-Ching are all elaborate methods of communicating with Dust/Shadows.
Will visits a library, where he learns that his father, John Parry, went on an expedition into the Arctic, but never returned. Will examines a folder which contains his father's letters, which is what the men were searching for. From it he learns that John had found, on this expedition, a "window" leading into another world, and had written the coordinates of the "window" in one of his letters. Will is excited, because he has also found a window (into Cittàgazze), and knows what his father is talking about.
In Lyra's world, aëronaut Lee Scoresby learns that the explorer Stanislaus Grumman had become a shaman among the Svalbard tribes, and steals the ring of the Church from an agent. The witch Ruta Skadi joins a band of angels who are flying to Lord Asriel's fortress. Asriel is calling all beings from all worlds to join an army under his command, which will destroy the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, "The Authority", whom they perceive as a corrupt, oppressive force. Serafina Pekkala and her clan of witches travel though another window in the sky to Cittàgazze to find and protect Lyra.
The alethiometer tells Lyra that she must help Will find his father. In Oxford, en route to visit Mary Malone, she is trapped by some police officers. Lyra accidentally gives away that she knows Will, whom these officers seek. She escapes with Mary's help, and is offered a ride by a man who introduces himself as Sir Charles Latrom, whom she previously met in the museum. He abets her escape, but steals her alethiometer, because he wants something in return, which the reader will soon find out.
Later, Will and Lyra go to Sir Charles Latrom's house, intending to take the alethiometer back. It is revealed that Sir Charles is Lord Boreal, a nobleman from Lyra's world, who has also found a passage between worlds and has been using it for some time. Charles/Boreal tells them that they can have the alethiometer back if they bring him a knife of great power from Cittàgazze, since he cannot go there. Lyra and Will succeed; in the process of seizing the knife from a local youth, Will is marked as its next destined "Bearer", by losing two of his fingers.
This "Subtle" knife has two sides; one which can cut through any known matter in the universe, and one which can cut into different worlds. The latter function of the knife, as well as the intuitive operation of the alethiometer of which Lyra is capable, requires the user to enter into a state of negative capability, a condition of willful open-mindedness. All of the windows between worlds, which were carelessly left open, had been made in this way by users of the knife. The knife's former bearer teaches Will how to open and close windows. Will and Lyra realise that they can use the knife to steal back the alethiometer, by cutting a window directly into Boreal's study. Will sneaks in, but is unable to seize the alethiometer. He hides behind Lord Boreal's sofa when Marisa Coulter walks in, clearly aiming to seduce and control Boreal. Will then opens a hole into his world via Cittàgazze, taking the alethiometer before escaping.
Lee Scoresby seeks and finds the mystic Stanislaus Grumman, who is known by the name "Jopari" by the tribe of Tartars he joined. Stanislaus reveals that "Jopari" is no more than a mispronunciation of his true name, John Parry. He desperately wishes to find the bearer of the subtle knife, so that he can return to his own world. Lee joins Parry on his quest, guided by Parry's shamanic powers.
Mary Malone writes a computer program that can communicate verbally with Shadow-particles. The Shadows/Dust say that they are rebel angels who tempted Adam and Eve, accelerating evolution and birthing human awareness of affairs beyond immediate need. The Shadows tell Mary to go through the window into Cittàgazze in order to "play the serpent." She complies.
Will and Lyra are rescued by Serafina Pekkala's witches as they tried to escape from the other children of Cittàgazze. Although the witches attempt to heal Will's left hand that has been marked by the subtle knife, it continues to bleed unquenchably. Ruta Skadi returns, reporting that Asriel's fortress and army are incomprehensibly vast, and that only something or someone called "Æsahættr" can defeat the Authority. A group of angels arrive to see Lyra, who is destined to change the fate of the multiverse.
Lee Scoresby and John Parry arrive in Cittàgazze, travelling toward the same mountaintop that Will, Lyra and the witches approach. They are chased by four zeppelins carrying soldiers of the Church. Although three of the aircrafts are destroyed by John Parry, the shaman is too weak to stop the last one. Scoresby has John Parry proceed while he stays behind to fend off the attackers; he dies bravely, single-handedly killing the thirty soldiers and destroying the last zeppelin. Mrs Coulter poisons Boreal when he has given her information about the subtle knife, and tortures another witch into telling her that Lyra is destined to become a second Eve. Mrs Coulter, fearing a second "Fall" from grace, decides that Lyra must be kept hidden or be destroyed by the Church.
Will ventures up the mountain, where he encounters his father. Neither recognizes the other until they see each other's faces clearly; by this time, John Parry has healed Will's hand with a bloodmoss-based ointment. Less than a second later, John Parry is killed by a witch, Juta Kamainen, who resents him for refusing to couple with her, having taken his refusal as a question of her worth to himself. Will then watches the witch commit suicide. He descends the mountain and sees that Lyra has been kidnapped; all that remains is Lyra's backpack, containing the alethiometer. A pair of angels approach who tell Will to go with them to Lord Asriel. Will refuses; he won't go until he finds Lyra.
|Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials|
|Main Trilogy||Northern Lights • The Subtle Knife • The Amber Spyglass|
|Book of Dust||La Belle Sauvage • The Secret Commonwealth|
|Companion Books||Lyra's Oxford • Once Upon a Time in the North • The Collectors • Green Book|