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The Subtle Knife

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  Finished reading Pullman's The Subtle Knife this weekend. First, the flippant two-second review:

In case you missed it, the book spells out its allegory.

Now the longer version:

First I'll say that I found this book as enjoyable if not more so than The Golden Compass. Now the complaining! I still wish that I had read these books without the taint of the controversy surrounding them. I'm sure that I would be able to easier confront the themes in them without prejudice. Shoving all the patriarchal religious nonsense aside as best one can when the author blatantly TELLS you that Lyra and Will's quest is an Adam and Eve story, I'm still left puzzling out a couple of problems with Pullman's characters.

One of the main characters in The Subtle Knife is a man called Grumman, whose presence was introduced in The Golden Compass but who you don't get to meet until mroe than halfway through Knife. He's an interesting and well built-up character, surrounded by mystery and lore. He's gotten his skull trepanned and has become a shaman of the tribe in Lyra's world he's been living with. There are certain things I expect of a shaman. I approve that Pullman attributed him with a powerful osprey daemon who acts on his behalf in dreaming quests. But at one point, the character turns to another and says something along the lines of, "We are human. Nothing comes naturally to us."

That line broke me out of the groove on the book. Opinionatedly, I would say this demonstrates Pullman's subpar understanding of how shamans view man's connection to the natural world. Following that line of troubling thought back, I would sadly have to say that it is a demonstration of the author's prejudices being spoken out of turn by a character who the sentiment doesn't fit. 

Another troubling line that Pullman has taken in these books is the insistence that Lyra is not an imaginative child. I can't quite follow the reasoning he gives why this is true, and I can't quite figure out if he means this to be a compliment to Lyra or an insult. I'm leaning toward compliment, seeing this description as his way of saying Lyra is trustworthy and leans toward reason. And yet he's made her a very passionate little undisciplined creature and spent a whole chapter in the first book describing her mock battles with other children. If that kind of play isn't imaginative, I'm not quite sure what qualifies as imagination. In all, I get a strange vibe from his description of children and the themes in these books that Pullman sees children as something less than human. Admittedly, kid is just one letter above being just id, but he seems to be cutting out (pun intended) the thing that makes children most wonderful.

So I found this a worthwhile read, but even his best developed characters leave something wanting.

Next up - Robin Hobb's The Assassin's Apprentice. Only 20 pages in, but liking it.
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On February 4th, 2008 05:03 am (UTC), tashewolf commented:
Questioning response: I do not remember offhand how much we get to find out about exactly who Grumman is at this particular juncture. There are very good reasons why being a shaman might not have come at all naturally to him, and yet why he knows it's what he must do.

I too found it weird, the idea of Lyra being unimaginative, when she's the most skilled liar ever! Very confusing. I LOVE Will. To be totally fair and agree with your assessment on child characterization -- he is, however, essentially a small adult. It may be that Pullman himself was a functionally small adult from an inappropriate age, on the perception front. (I don't actually know.)

Hope you continue to enjoy the Assassin's Apprentice! Just finished rereading the trilogy following (and started again with the third that brings us back to Fitz) -- Bingtown as opposed to Six Duchies -- and enjoyed it so much this go-round that I'm not sure it's not kicking the other trilogies' asses. But then again... there is much in that trilogy that would be much less satisfying without having read the first. I love love love all the many perspectives she gets merely by traveling about the continent.

PS Got your shelfari invite! Have been a bucket of fail in catching up on either work OR life-having.
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