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The Amber Spyglass

The third book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" fantasy novel trilogy.

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The Magnificent, Anti-Climactic Mess

  • Sep 13, 2008
Pros: At least it's imaginative

Cons: The anti-Christian stuff is only hype

The Bottom Line: I've read The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, but I haven't reviewed them.

The name of The Amber Spyglass is controversy. Specifically, it’s the controversy created by millions of Christians who have never bothered to sit down and actually read the book. However, I do have one infallible source who actually does know something about The Amber Spyglass, the third and final volume of Phillip Pullman’s now-famous anti-Christian trilogy, His Dark Materials. I have a friend who is a Christian minister who has read His Dark Materials and told me she was a little offended by the anti-religious slant of The Amber Spyglass. (She had few, if any, such qualms about The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, the first two books in the His Dark Materials trilogy.) When I heard her say that, I thought to myself, <i>I have to read these books!</i>

Well, I tracked them down and I read them. I have to say, I’m really not getting what all the fuss is about. I’m going to tell you what I told my friend: I don’t see what’s so anti-Christian about The Amber Spyglass. If Phillip Pullman was trying to tell his readers how much Christianity sucks, he should have been a lot more direct about it. As it turns out, Pullman wimped out big time. The Amber Spyglass felt more anti-authoritarian than anti-Christian. There are no direct assaults on Christianity. The main villain of the His Dark Materials trilogy – who is thought of and in fact even promoted as God, with a capital G – is not God but a weak substitute by the name is Metatron. Metatron is a laughable name because he is but a single letter away from being the leader of the Decepticons. Pullman is attempting to substitute God with the rejected name of a Transformer? My, what an ever-so-blasphemous development!

Please keep in mind my personal spiritual beliefs have a heavily atheistic leaning.

There is, however, a very obvious attack on the church, which comes in the form of a large faceless organization. The organization, called the Magisterium, is sinister. I didn’t quite understand why they were trying to do what they were trying to do, or what consequences it could possibly bring to the populace. I didn’t understand what the existence of Dust was for, either, despite it being explained. And I certainly didn’t understand whose side I should have been taking in the epic battle between Metatron and Lord Asriel.

I’m going to tell you why I was offended by The Amber Spyglass: It was just a plain old mess and not a particularly engaging book. Pullman probably would have needed one or two more volumes in order to wrap the story in a neat little package, but he wanted to keep His Dark Materials a trilogy, so he just threw everything together. Scenes switch back and forth rapidly, and when you want to see one scene played through to its finish, Pullman gives you a suspense finish and cuts to the next scene. We get a terrible jumble of politics weaved in with a couple of adventure stories and stories of friendship and love just for good measure. At times, we get confused by new characters. There’s a pair of angels who help Will in the beginning and a pair of spies who help Will and Lyra in the land of the dead. All of them have disagreements with the two main characters, Will and Lyra, about what their next move should be and why they should make it. But ultimately they’re all wasted because Lyra and Will always seem like their minds were made up before they announce their newest plans and were just looking for the blessings of their companions.

As it happens, Lyra gets ridiculous ideas of what she has to do based on virtually no evidence and just instincts. She conjures up the idea that she has to go the Land of the Dead to see her friend Roger based on nothing. Once there, she somehow figures out that it’s her job to get the dead out of the Land of the Dead. I will give Pullman credit for making the Land of the Dead into a very rotten place, though, because anyone there could get the idea they’re not supposed to be there. But even then, Pullman tosses a curveball by displaying a religious person who insists the Land of the Dead is a reward.

I was bugged not just in The Amber Spyglass, but throughout the whole trilogy that Will and Lyra are the only two characters who are genuinely good guys. When we first walk into the story of The Amber Spyglass, Lyra is still kidnapped, and is being kept asleep by Ms. Coulter in a mountain cave. Her golden monkey Daemon, for the first time, is shown to have thoughts of his own, and he is beginning to question the side Ms. Coulter has chosen. Ms. Coulter herself is also asking those same questions. But these sudden good sides are merely flashes and ultimately they are inconsequential. And Lord Asriel is still preparing his army for an all-out battle against Metatron. Lord Asriel is apparently the character whose side we’re supposed to be on, but Lord Asriel is the most purposely unlikable protagonist since Sam Spade. These are not people we want to root for, because rooting for them goes against every moral fiber Pullman supporter Richard Dawkins tries to tell us we have.

The book is filled with a ton of wasted space in the scenes with Dr. Mary Malone. Malone was last seen in The subtle Knife taking off to Lyra’s world on some kind of quest. But her quest doesn’t appear to be that desperate. When she meets creatures called the mulefa, she suddenly takes up residence with their society because she is fascinated by the creatures. The amber spyglass she builds while staying with them is a useless plot device. The alethiometer Lyra uses and the portal-opening knife Will uses were important plot devices. Not the spyglass. Though Malone is a likeable enough character, nothing really happens in her scenes.

Lyra, as we know from the first two books, is the designated Eve who is supposed to re-enact the fall into sin. The Magisterium of course wants to prevent that, but if mankind’s fall is a good thing, Pullman should have chosen a better word than “sin” to tell the story. Sin is a universal concept and not necessarily a religious one. Seems to me that the Magisterium would be doing the world a favor. Furthermore, the actual fall is anti-climactic. When I got to it, I had to re-read the scene just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

In closing, I’ll just repeat what my friend said when I compared His Dark Materials to a trilogy of fantasy books written by another famous atheist, one Mr. J.R.R. Tolkien: “Tolkien is a genius. Pullman…. Has a few interesting ideas.”


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Quick Tip by . February 23, 2011
One of the most disappointing books I have ever read. It cannot be read apart from The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife. This is the book where the heroes from the first two novels recruit all sorts of other beings in other parallel worlds (including Hades and what is essentially Hell) for a battle with the angels. The recruiting takes ages and is dull and the battle is incomprehensible. Mr. Pullman lost sight of the chemistry between the principle characters and got mired in philosophic ephemera. …
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From the very start of its very first scene,The Amber Spyglasswill set hearts fluttering and minds racing. All we'll say here is that we immediately discover who captured Lyra at the end ofThe Subtle Knife, though we've yet to discern whether this individual's intent is good, evil, or somewhere in between. We also learn that Will still possesses the blade that allows him to cut between worlds, and has been joined by two winged companions who are determined to escort him to Lord Asriel's mountain redoubt. The boy, however, has only one goal in mind--to rescue his friend and return to her the alethiometer, an instrument that has revealed so much to her and to readers ofThe Golden Compassand itsfollow-up. Within a short time, too, we get to experience the "tingle of the starlight" on Serafina Pekkala's skin as she seeks out a famished Iorek Byrnison and enlists him in Lord Asriel's crusade:
A complex web of thoughts was weaving itself in the bear king's mind, with more strands in it than hunger and satisfaction. There was the memory of the little girl Lyra, whom he had named Silvertongue, and whom he had last seen crossing the fragile snow bridge across a crevasse in his own island of Svalbard. Then there was the agitation among the witches, the rumors of pacts and alliances and war; and then there was the surpassingly strange fact of this new world itself, and the witch's insistence that there were many more such worlds, and that the ...
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ISBN-10: 0440238153
ISBN-13: 978-0440238157
Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Religious Allegory
Publisher: Laurel Leaf, Knopf, Del Rey
Format: Novel
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