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The Subtle Knife opens in a world very much like our own. A young boy named Will Parry is bringing his ill mother to stay with Mrs. Cooper, Will’s old piano teacher. Mrs. Cooper reluctantly agrees to take care of Mrs. Parry for a little while. Will returns to his house, where he lives alone with his mother. Men have been coming to the house looking for letters that Will’s father wrote to Will’s mother, and Will wants to find them before the men do. Just before Will finds the letters, the men arrive at the house. Will escape with the letters, accidentally killing one of the men along the way.
Will runs until he finds himself on a strange street. He sees a cat that reminds him of his own cat. The cat jumps through a window in the air, and Will follows her through and discovers that he is in a new world. The city he finds himself in seems to be deserted. Will seeks refuge in a small house, and there he meets Lyra. The pair are initially frightened of one other because Lyra has never seen anyone without a daemon and Will has never seen a daemon.
Elsewhere, Serafina Pekkala sees Mrs. Coulter torturing a witch to find out what the witch knows about Lyra. Serafina kills the ailing witch to prevent her from telling Mrs. Coulter what she knows. Serafina goes to Svalbard, where she meets Lord Asriel’s servant, who tells her that Lord Asriel means to start a war with God. Serafina flies back to her clan and to Lee Scoresby. Ruta Skadi, the queen of the Latvian witches, has joined them.
Lee Scoresby says that he is going to look for a scientist and explorer named Stanislaus Grumman. Serafina and her witches decide that they need to summon other witch clans to fight on Lord Asriel’s side and protect Lyra. Ruta Skadi will go to Lord Asriel to see what he is really doing.
Back in the new world, Lyra and Will meet two children named Angelica and Paolo. They tell Will and Lyra that the city they are in is called Cittàgazze (or Ci’gazze), and that it is filled with specters, which are wraiths that feed on adults. Specters cannot harm children and children cannot see specters.
Lyra and Will agree to go to Will’s Oxford. Lyra wants to find a physicist who can tell her about Dust and Will wants to find out more about his father, an Arctic explorer who disappeared before Will was born. Will’s mother always said that Will would take up his father’s mantle.
Lyra goes first to a museum where she meets an old man who seems very interested in her. While examining skulls in a case, Lyra learns from the alethiometer that the skulls of people who lived more than 33,000 years ago have less Dust around them than the skulls of people who lived more recently. After consulting the alethiometer, Lyra finds a physicist who can help her. This physicist is a former nun named Mary Malone who researches dark matter and something she calls Shadows. Mary explains that Shadows are conscious and they cluster around humans—they are the same thing Lyra calls Dust. Lyra convinces Mary that she can talk to Shadows. Will learns more about the Arctic expedition his father was on just before he vanished. Back in Ci’gazze, Will reads his father’s letters and finds out that just before he disappeared, his father was looking for the same kind of hole into another universe that Will fell through. In Lyra’s world, Lee accidentally kills an agent of the Church. Serafina and her witches enter the world of Ci’gazze and learn about the Specters. Ruta leaves the witches to follow a flight of angels to Lord Asriel’s fortress.
Though Lyra and Will are the same age and are from the same city (albeit the same city in different worlds), they couldn’t be more different. Lyra is an independent, irreverent scamp, whereas Will is somber and responsible. Lyra’s adventures have been fantastical affairs involving daemons, talking bears, and witches. Will, on the other hand, must deal with painfully real problems, looking after his ailing mother and protecting her from real and imagined foes. What Will and Lyra do have in common is a lack of strong parental figures. Lyra’s mother and father have been hidden from her for most of her life and she has never lived under strict supervision. Will’s father is missing and his mother relies on him for structure and support. Because both Will and Lyra have largely raised themselves, they are free to set out on adventures.
In Ci’gazze Will and Lyra meet the fierce Angelica and her stupid little brother Paolo, who tell them about specters, which are unique to their current world. Like Dust, specters point to a fundamental difference between adults and children. They feed on the life force and energy of adults. Children, who are still in the process of being formed, can’t even see specters. Specters can sense when a child’s soul is starting to take its final formation and they hover around these children.
Also in this section of the book, Lyra meets Dr. Mary Malone, who studies dark matter. Scientists in our own world have long been intrigued by dark matter. The existence of dark matter was posited when people realized that even with all the known planets and suns, gravity should make the universe collapse in on itself. This logical problem led to the idea that matter that is undetectable—dark matter—exists. Dr. Malone and her colleague Oliver Payne have been trying to prove this theory. Not only do they believe that dark matter exists but they also think that it has consciousness. They try to communicate with Dust through computers. They refer to dark matter as “Shadows.” When Lyra appears and is able to communicate with their computer using the skills she has learned through the alethiometer, she proves that dark matter is conscious and does respond to human thought. Together, Lyra and Mary discover that dark matter, Shadows, and Dust are the same thing.
Lyra’s discovery that the reduced Dust levels around the skulls of people who lived more than 33,000 years ago suggests that humans were not always conscious, spiritual beings. Since Dust is only attracted to full-fledged humans, the lack of dust around certain skulls tells us that before 33,000 years ago, humans were more like other animals than they are today. They were alive, but they did not have the ability to make decisions or live deliberately.
Just after Lyra’s discovery, Will learns that his father was looking for windows into other worlds just like the one that Will went through to get to Ci’gazze. This means that the windows are not a new phenomenon. They have been around at least as long as Will has been alive. It also means that perhaps Will’s father is not dead. It is possible that he wandered into another world and got lost or has been unable to return.
As in Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which a group of angels follows Satan, a war party of angels goes to join Pullman’s Satan figure, Lord Asriel. What Ruta Skadi learns about the angels during her flight with them is almost as interesting as what she learns from them. The angels are ancient, sexless beings. They are shaped like humans, but unlike humans, they wear no clothes. Unlike Adam and Eve, who felt ashamed of their nakedness after eating from the tree of knowledge, the angels don’t know shame. But this also means that they are not as aware of their physical beings as humans are. In Pullman’s fictional universe, angels envy humans their short lives because humans have bodies and can experience desire and pleasure and pain.
Ace your assignments with our guide to His Dark Materials!