I know I've read this book before. I know that, because I have it in my records for 1998. The thing is, had I not known that I had read this book before, I would have told you that this was my first time reading it. I remembered absolutely nothing about it, even as I was re-reading it. I didn't remember all the details from The Golden Compass, but I remembered many of the key scenes. The Subtle Knife, though, was a brand new experience for me.
This is an interesting book, especially when you consider how The Golden Compass ended. It ended on an emotional note, sort of on a cliff-hanger moment, so I expected to be able to pick this up and see what happened next after that moment. I did reach that point, but it took me a couple of chapters to do so. Pullman started this novel in a completely different world than where the events of The Golden Compass took place, and introduced a new character who hadn't been present in that book. It was a bit jarring, as well as a little annoying. Maybe it would have been different if I hadn't read the two books back-to-back, but I was expecting a little more of an immediate transition between the books.
Lyra is still the main character of the series, but most of the characters from the first book aren't present. She's moved on to the world she discovered when she followed her father through the Northern Lights, which then takes her to our modern world. The plot continues to be one of discovery, and the themes continue to focus on spiritualism and religion, though this time Pullman is more direct in challenging the church, but having a mostly-new cast of characters in a trilogy was a little surprising. It worked well enough, but it took me by surprise.
Like The Golden Compass, the story has real emotion in it, courtesy of Lyra. More specifically, the emotion comes from the relationship Lyra has with Pantalaimon. In fact, Pullman does a great job of creating the relationships between all characters and their dæmons, as illustrated by a scene near the end of the novel with Lee and Hester. Maybe it's because the dæmons represent a person's closest companion, and are represented as a pet, that makes it such a strong relationship, but Will Parry, the new protagonist in this novel, has no dæmon, and is as easy to relate to as Lyra.
As I mentioned in my review for The Golden Compass, the themes of the series are heavy enough for me to view this more as a YA book than a juvenile book, but there are points in the story when I realize that the book is intended for a younger audience. Sometimes the story lacks subtlety, especially with character motivation and dialogue. Some characters just blurt out whatever needs to be known at the time, even when saying such things would only put those characters in a perilous situation. There's no circling around the point in these cases, which is a trait I've seen in other juvenile stories.
I'm enjoying the series well enough, and I'm eager to see how it wraps up, but I'm not having the same kind of response to it as other readers have had. I see a lot of four- and five-star ratings from other friends and readers, but it kind of lacks the cohesion that I want out of a story this epic. Maybe once I finish The Amber Spyglass it will all come together, but right now it feels a little disjointed, as it seems like a lot of the key elements of the story are being forced together. I'll definitely see it through to the end, though.