The second book in Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy The Subtle Knife is a roaring good read, and a sophisticated modern fantasy. Originally I bought the edition here for my son, 12 at the time, but he was rather less interested than I was, mainly, as I now discover, because he didn’t share my taste for science fiction and fantasy.
Fantasy for Children?
It’s also a mistake to classify this as a children’s book (many so-called children’s writers would say the same about their own work). For those not particularly keen on fantasy there’s a tendency to equate triviality with the genre, especially if the main characters are children. Of course any cursory reading of Pullman will reveal a strong philosophical thread, and a desire to challenge which an enquiring reader of any age will enjoy. The character of Will Parry, a young lad from Oxford, and Lyra, with their adventures flitting between worlds, remind me of Little Dorrit and Pip in Great Expectations (Dickens’ children are often perfectly etched) and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies with its community of children attempting to run their own lives. Pullman though brings his pacy narrative into the modern world with flourishes of mystery that keep the interest flowing throughout.
Dark Materials is sometimes considered to be one of the great fantasy sequences of our time, but it falls behind Tolkein’s ground-breaking high fantasy, and J.K. Rowling’s hermetically sealed magical creations perhaps because it deals so transparently with big issues, attracting more criticism than affection. However, strong central ideas, such as the use of the knife itself, the clustering of dust (a sort of dark matter) and the marvellous daemons, probably brings this particular book into my top 20, perhaps top 10 on this gathering list of 100 best SF and Fantasy books.
- Top 100 SF & F Books. American Gods. Neil Gaiman
- Virgil Finlay: Master of Dark Fantasy Illustration
- Robert Louis Stevenson: Master of Victorian Gothic
- Dark Fantasy
Front cover photograph by Elise Wells, 2016