October 1, 2009

Rabid Reads: "The Amber Spyglass" by Philip Pullman

Title: The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, Book Three)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Laurel Leaf (2000)
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Pages: 480
ISBN 0440238153
(isbn13: 9780440238157)

In The Golden Compass, Lyra was the one who inherited the compass (an althiometer that answered any question she asked truthfully, so long as she asked the right question). In The Subtle Knife, Will inherited a knife capable of cutting through the fabric of space into other dimensions, as well as slicing through absolutely any material he set it to, with each purpose on opposing sides of the blade. As for The Amber Spyglass, the mystery of what it is and who inherits it is surprisingly a mere subplot in the final book in Pullman's trilogy.

The main story revolves around Lyra and Will on their journey to discover how Lord Asriel intends to wage war against "the Authority." But, at the end of The Subtle Knife Lyra was abducted and Will discovered his father was still alive, only to see him die before his eyes at the hands of a vengeful witch. All points are destined to intersect in the climax of this epic story, and if you'd read the first two you won't be disappointed, though you may be surprised at how the story ends in a manner you hadn't imagined.

This book is the longest of the three and for good reason, because there is a lot of stuff going on. Lyra's been abducted and placed in hiding by her mother, Ms. Coulter. Will has been placed in the protection of two angels charged with escorting him to the site of the final battle to deliver the knife to Lord Asriel. But Will is determined to save Lyra first before going anywhere else. Meanwhile, Lord Asriel and Ms. Coulter each are going through their own meandering paths that could lead them either to redemption or destruction. Plus, a scientist from our universe, Dr. Mary Malone, takes a major role in a world inhabited by very strange creatures. She's discovered "Dust" and it has a consciousness and guides her on a quest to help Lyra and Will.

Mary's story was both intriguing and ill-fitting, as it really seemed out of place from everything else going on in the book. As a stand-alone, I would have been with her every step of the way, but I spent nearly the entire book waiting for her to figure out what the hell she was supposed to do and how to get to the children again.

Overall, the trilogy is a fantastic piece of storytelling. As a single book, The Amber Spyglass droned on a bit for me. And the mish-mash of story arcs taking place had a problem coming together, I thought. Characters were concentrated on that I didn't find particularly intriguing, like the assassin sent to kill the children and his adventures between universes. And characters like Serraphina the good witch and Iorek the bad-ass polar bear king were given a back burner approach. And the ambiguous approach to Lord Asriel's character seemed like a bit of a letdown, as I thought he was villain--either Pullman meant to keep him in a gray area, or he just lost hold of the character's direction.

The whole book and the various characters' paths all lead to the "Fall," a huge war to end all wars as angels, demons, humans, and just about anything else with a consciousness picks up arms to battle each other for the fate of all existence. Sounds like it should be a spectacular conflict to put other fantasy skirmishes to shame, yet it is inevitably glossed over for the moral component about God's role and that of humanity's.

I'm a godless heathen, so the perceived blasphemy doesn't bother me at all. But, if a bible-thumper is going to get ticked off about Pullman's attitudes and storytelling, this is the book they'd find the best ammunition. The final chapters wrap it all up quite well, though the climax felt a bit muddled. Anti-God? Not this book. Anti-church? Now you're getting closer to the mark. I don't think this book or any other has the power to turn a good little Christian child into a hell-bent anti-theist. Like my childhood, kids are pretty keen at making up their own minds.

I strongly recommend His Dark Materials as reading material for everyone, but I add the warning that this final book in the trilogy is the one to cause the strongest reaction, whether good or bad. However, if you prefer decrying it as blasphemy and tossing it in the bonfire, it's your call ... a horrendously bad call, but still your call.

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