Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers on April 16th 1996
Genres: middle grade, fantasy
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Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford's Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the so-called 'compass' of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called "Gobblers"—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person's inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.
I can sit here and say that I loved this book and be untruthful but do it to appease its many fans. But I’m not going to because that would be dishonest. There is no denying that this is a wonderful book with great ideas and themes, skillful writing, rich world-building and more, but it was simply not a Kara book.
That is not to say I did not enjoy it at all, because there were parts I loved. Like all the scenes with Iorek and Pantalaimon because I love animals. Fantasy incarnations of animals are obviously going to please me.
And there’s no denying that this book is completely original and unique, but that was exactly the problem for me. It was SO original that it went to a place I could not follow. Does that make sense? I just got bored. It lost me. It was more about religion than I thought it was going to be (yes I had heard the stories but I thought it was more symbolism and behind the scenes than in your face). Usually I don’t do well when books are about religion–even when it’s a fantasy version of Christianity. I just tune right out and my eyes glaze over. It’s literally like a biological response that I cannot stop.
And gosh, I know that this book is a favorite to so many–while I was reading it I heard about how many of you loved it on Twitter–and I was hoping for the same. But I found the characters really dull and undeveloped, and characters are everything to me. Lyra could have been ANY female child. Uncle Asriel and Mrs. Coulter were intimidating and frightening, yeah, but beyond that, who were they exactly? Lee Scoresby wasn’t in the book long enough for me to even get to know him–same thing with Serafina Pekkala. I wanted more of a bond between Iorek and Lyra, and the book kept telling me how much they loved each other, but it didn’t manage to show me. So I was really bummed this just didn’t work for.
Yet when all that is said and done, I still gave it 3.5 stars, and I bet you are trying to figure out why. “If you disliked it so much, how can you rate it so highly?” Let me try to clarify. It’s because I appreciate the technical ability and the depth of the story and themes, even if it wasn’t for me. No one I know could write a book like this. I work with a lot of authors, and sorry, literally none of them could write a book like this. I believe fantasy is the hardest genre to write, because it all comes from your head, your life experiences, and you create worlds with that. They you take someone like Philip Pullman, who is perhaps one of the most talented of all, because he has woven many real life themes, places, and objects, and created an entirely new fantasy world out of it. With it he challenges religion and provides a vessel for people to think and reassess what they know. That’s what the very best books are supposed to do. And that’s why so many of them are banned books. Because a book like this, in the hands of the right person, can make them see everything they thought they knew in a new light. And THAT’S why this book still made an impact on me right there.
I own the trilogy–it’s one fat omnibus. I can’t say that I will read the next two books super soon, but I know at some point I will finish them. I just want to approach the next two books when I am in the right place to read them. I have a feeling that now that I understand more what this trilogy is trying to do, I might enjoy it more if I pick it up when I am in the right frame of mind. At the time I picked this up, I wanted an escape, something Christmas-y, and middle grade. Though this book is MG, it doesn’t really feel like it is, or like it should be. It feels like an adult book to me, with adult themes, with talking animals and a child protagonist. There is nothing wrong with this–it’s just not what I wanted when I picked it up.
So, The Subtle Knife, I am coming for you! When the time is right.