The Subtle Flaw

His Dark Materials

I’ve just finished Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. It’s very good — brilliant in places, even. I have more things to say about the whole His Dark Materials sequence, but I’ll wait until I read The Amber Spyglass.

Instead, I’ll comment on one flaw in the book. The Subtle Knife is so brilliant, that when a flaw shows up, it really stands out. I hope I offend no-one by focusing on this point, but while it’s small, it’s jarring.

Note that spoilers follow…

In the course of the story, we are introduced to the young witch, Juta Kamainen. Well, she’s not introduced so much as pulled out of a hat so the author can wave her about and say “here! It’s Juta Kamainen! Stanislaus Grumman spurned her! Just thought you’d like to know!”

She doesn’t have much of a character to speak of. She speaks harshly of Stanislaus in one scene and she’s shown brooding in Serafina’s posse in another scene several pages on.

Then Will, the knife bearer, meets Stanislaus Grumman, who is actually John Parry, his father. John has been out of Will’s life for ten years, and both are gaping holes in each others’ hearts. They have a wonderfully written and very touching realization and then… you guessed it: Juta Kamainen comes bursting out of the dark and shoots John through the heart with her arrow.

Not a very subtle way to bring this tragedy about.

And coming in the middle of the scene that is full of powerful emotions, both before the death and after, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and I’m wondering what Mr. Pullman was thinking. Juta Kamainen has no business being in the book if the sole purpose of her existence is to kill Stanislaus Grumman. And given that there follows a scene — unfortunately told in hearsay — of witches fighting a losing battle against a horde of spectres, there are plenty of other opportunities to bring about this death. A stray arrow, perhaps? He dies fighting to protect his son?

If I can come up with better ideas off the top of my head, then something’s wrong, here.

Oh, well. The book is written and finished, and is otherwise brilliant. I love the chemistry between Lyra and Will. And although I miss Lyra’s mixed up world, Cittagazze was interesting to read. It’s all coming together masterfully, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion.

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