Monday, June 09, 2008

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials Book 3) - a review

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series)

The Amber Spyglass is the third and last book in Philip Pullman's His Dark materials series.

Lyra, our spunky pseudo-Victorian girl heroine from the first two novels, and Will, her traveling companion from modern London, who has mastered a knife that cuts through the walls which separate dimensions, have been separated. They are being hunted by the heavenly host and representatives of "the church" from dozens of universes. It seems Lyra, by any other name, is Eve, and the church wants to stop her from falling by any means necessary.

This is the basic premise of The Amber Spyglass. It unfolds from there, and makes full use of themes developed in the earlier novels. I'm not going to divulge any other plot details, mostly because they are so delicious in the uncovering, and I would never deny a reader the pleasure of finding them on his or her own.

I will tell you how I felt about the book, however, which I think is important because the His Dark Materials series is so rich and varied in emotional texture.

As I noted in a review of the second book in the series, each of the books has a distinctly different feel, mostly because, I think, Mr. Pullman is trying to do different things with each book. The first book introduced and connected readers to the main character. The second book was a bridge, introducing a range of supporting characters and laying out a framework to hang the conclusions of the second novel on.

Pullman moves from a very exciting adventure in Golden Compass, through a more thoughtful novel hung more on ideas than action in Subtle Knife, to a final novel that starts out looking like a Fellini war novel and ends up being a rather quiet pronunciation of faith. Which is a trick, for a novel and novelist so pointedly skeptical.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. By switching gears in the middle of stories like he does, the author also gives you opportunities to be surprised. I was, on several occasions, pleasantly surprised by narrative elements which felt new to me. I have to admit, that sometimes I felt like the slam bang Gotterdammerung conclusion promised was denied me. But The Amber Spyglass was ultimately very thought provoking in the way it dismissed as legerdemain antagonists who had been developed over the run of the series. The author seems to be saying "Forget all the lurid pyrotechnics. Here's the real issue, and it's much closer to home."

Pullman continues his thematic distrust of higher powers, sketching them in with a bleak and uncomforting world of the dead straight out of the Greek mythology, and heavenly powers that are both as arrogant and sheltered as their great power would make an earthly counterpart.

This leads, I believe, to his asking epic questions about self-worth and purpose, and answering them without resorting to God's love. I think he creates a stable argument for living a fulfilled life without reliance on higher powers. My favorite part of the novel is where he reclaims joy from the obsessive compulsive Judeo Christian "hierarchy of acceptable bliss."

As well as being eloquent, The Amber Spyglass is lusciously lurid, so that fans of high fantasy won't be disappointed. In some ways, it's his richest helping of fantasy-pudding yet, expanding the steam punk venue of his first world into a multiverse inhabited by venomous bug people, armored bears, rebel angels, and a very deft reworking of Frank Baum's wheelers. He threads the story with a battle comparable to Milton, and love stories, both parental and romantic, worthy of Orpheus.

Amber Spyglass is a lot of things: an adventure, a romance, an allegory. It's a wonderful cap to an inventive series, and worth reading the series merely to get to the end result.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.

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