Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.
The Subtle Knife, the second book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, picks up nowhere at all The Golden Compass left off at. Giddy with anticipation to get lost in yet stranger worlds, and with imagination run wild with fast and vague snapshots of the imperious Lord Asriel who is conspicuously absent here in all but name, possessing such balls of steel that their clanging echoes across immense, immense, immense (two can play that game) distances, fearlessly taking on the heavens, we wide-eyed readers start flipping past the cover and table of contents to escape from our boring world into, to some surprise, much the same world. Actually, it's exactly the same one.
Enter Will Parry, an average boy from an average world (read: ours), who for reasons as yet unknown is running with his somewhat unhinged mother from strange and scary men. All right, cool, but where're the goods? But thankfully, in the same first chapter, before the second stage of grief sets in, silver-tongued Lyra Belacqua, Pantalaimon ever beside her, pops up and bumps into Will. From there, the read is a breeze. Familiar characters are brought back, some new ones added, questions raised, some answers provided, ducks lined up in a row for the inevitable climax, The Amber Spyglass. Pullman, when it comes to book titles, clearly favors bluntness: as The Golden Compass refers to Lyra's all-seeing alethiometer, so does The Subtle Knife mean Will's all-cutting knife, the one to end all others, to tear through all things, fabrics of realities included. Our two leads, now equipped with overpowered superpowers, are ready to bring down the house, which, of course, they don't, as there wouldn't be much of a story otherwise. The way Pullman gets around having so powerful a pair of game-changers in the equation is, for very patient readers, mostly forgivable.
Totaling 368 pages, The Subtle Knife is the shortest book in the series. Naturally, provided they call in sick and forego potty breaks, anyone can get through it in a day or two, their reading speed depending on their curiosity, and mine was ravenous. This book may have received one star lower than the last, but its rating shouldn't be a deal-breaker because what Pullman does right is mollification enough for where he stumbles; besides, The Golden Compass, with the crazy potential it promises, set for the man an impossibly high enough bar already that anything following it is bound to pale in comparison. "Bound to!" as Lyra would repeat, in that cutely emphatic way of hers, and also maybe with some bias, considering how heavily her world features in the first book, in sad contrast to the non-entity it becomes in the second. What may sustain the reader's interest this time, as it definitely did mine, are the characters, both old and new, and when each plays off the other: Lyra as a fish out of water, as well as every other world-hopping character (but mostly Lyra, as she's the most entertaining), adapting to new surroundings is pure entertainment. Her first encounter with Dr. Mary Malone, a dark-matter scientist, on whom she dumps knowledge no precocious child her age could possibly know, and thoroughly upsetting the good doctor's equilibrium in the process, is worth a re-read, this time with popcorn. There's also a character who, next to Dolores Umbridge and Walder Frey, I haven't wanted to see be subjected to a world of pain and hurt so much, and Lyra would cheerfully back me up on this; it would be instantly apparent who I mean when they appear.
Let's not pretend, by the way, that anyone, upon finishing this book, didn't afterwards grab The Amber Spyglass in a flash. As with the original, The Subtle Knife's ending doesn't leave much room for dilly-dallying. Unbearable pain, enough to send up white flags, and fatal in some cases, occurs in people of Lyra's world when their daemons are taken away. Technically, it would be a lie to suggest that, when the last two books aren't read back-to-back, the same thing happens. But it wouldn't be very comfortable.