The Amber Spyglass

By Philip Pullman

Dust

All the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity.

And Philip Pullman has clearly chosen his side: stupidity.  I’m sorry.  This book brings out the worst in me.  I spent three weeks reading this series and being talked down to, and I put up with it.  You know why?  Because of the implicit trust between author and reader that the author will answer his questions and not waste my time.  Well, I call foul, Phillip Pullman.  Contract of implicit trust broken!

The Amber Spyglass is Pullman’s final installment in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and after my mediocre reception of the first two books, I didn’t expect much from the last one.  Yet somehow, Pullman still managed to disappoint.  Between the convoluted plot and multiple themes, it seems that Pullman bit off more than he could chew, and tying up all the loose ends in a satisfying, logical manner was just too much to ask of him.

In the interest of fairness and honesty, I think it is necessary to point out that I am indeed a Christian.  Anyone who was alive when the movie adaption of the Golden Compass came out will remember the storm of conservative criticism surrounding the film and books’ anti-religion theme.  While the first two books in this series took the more subtle, beat-around-the-bush approach toward the subject, by the third book, it’s quite obvious that Philip Pullman and his His Dark Materials series is anti-Christian.  One character even says, “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”  Of course, I obviously disagree with the message, but my faith did not affect the way I reviewed this book from a storytelling perspective.  Pullman is entitled to any opinion he wants to have or write about.  Quite frankly, I’m more concerned with his flawed plot than his controversial message about killing God.  If it had been a masterpiece, I would have given The Amber Spyglass the credit it was due.  But unfortunately, it wasn’t.

The Amber Spyglass follows Will and Lyra as they travel through worlds, learning about Dust and trying to unravel the mysterious prophecies and strange events that follow them wherever their adventures take them.  The entire trilogy breaks down into five different story lines, each connected in a complicated web of cause and effect, and these story lines are made more confusing when you finish the series and realize that only one of these main characters has a clear goal, three have vague or constantly changing goals, and one has a goal that is never even revealed.  Readers will put this book down feeling incredibly frustrated.  After following Lyra and Will through multiple worlds and death itself, it is not even clear if anyone accomplished anything.  It seems like a lot of people died and nothing changed.

Pullman ends with an abundance of unanswered questions and gaping holes.  What about all those prophesies about Lyra?  She was supposed to be tempted like Eve and bring an end to destiny, and yet neither of those things happens.  Or whatever happened with Lord Asriel’s quest to save Dust and destroy God?  His is one of the main story lines that falls into the vague/constantly changing goals category and culminates at the end of the series in a great battle between creatures from a myriad of worlds and universes.  But we never learn the outcome of that battle, the war itself, or its affect on the church.  What happened?  Who won?  Does anyone besides the people fighting this battle even realize that it is taking place?  These are all questions that Pullman leaves unanswered.  If he’s trying to use Lord Asriel’s story to teach young children that religion is pointless, that wars are fought and lives are lost over nothing, then his message isn’t very clear.  There is no moment when Lord Asriel realizes that his war against god is pointless because god doesn’t exist.  Pullman just drags the readers off to another world mid-battle and  expects them to forget about all the questions he raised.

Pullman’s conveniently inconsistent plot makes all of the drama feel forced.  I can just see him now, hunched over his computer thinking, “This scene needs a little more pizazz . . . I’ll just toss a prophecy in there!  That’ll catch the readers’ attention.  No need to worry about fulfilling it though, because after a couple more twists and turns they’ll completely forget about it,” or “Hmm, this scene isn’t sad enough.  I’ll just have an angel show up and explain a terrible new rule that will separate these characters forever!  That’ll be a real tearjerker.”  Tragedy and drama should have a sense of inevitability, because it leads readers to accept a character’s fate no matter how sad it is, but Pullman’s scenarios seem like he wanted them to be sad but couldn’t come up with a good reason.  Perhaps Pullman should try writing some tween girl chick flicks, because he is an expert at cooking up drama that doesn’t exist all for the sake of making a story more exciting than it actually is.

All of this frustration is compounded by the fact that Pullman has a really great idea.  If the entire book and series had been a bore to read, the disappointment wouldn’t be so, well . . . disappointing.  But he pulls you in with his interesting concepts and vivid imagination and then takes you on a wild ride through worlds that jump off the page.  He weaves a complicated web of mystery that all but guarantees a mind-blowing conclusion.  And then he just stops.  The entire series was fun to read, but consider yourself warned.  You will be left hanging, dazed and confused, with a million unanswered questions.

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5 thoughts on “The Amber Spyglass

  1. I am in love with your review. It made me giggle.

    And now that I’ve read your thoughts (which were similar to mine), I wonder if Pullman was too caught up in CHRISTIANITY IS BAD that the rest of the plot points just dissolved. But he didn’t seem to do a super good job of “killing God” or convincing the reader of how terrible religion is in the first place, so…

    At least you only spent 3 week on the series. I spent WAY more than that because I listened to the audiobooks and had to slow the speed down from “fast” to “normal” because the accents were too thick for my American self to understand. So much time. Boo.

    • It was SO disappointing!! I’ve been reading books from the BBC’s Top 100 list. They were all voted on by BBC viewers, but that series still made it to number THREE. After Pride and Prejudice and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I just can’t figure out what people see in it that made it so popular. I was just not impressed.

      That is unfortunate you spent much more time listening to them. I probably would have given up!

  2. This is a brilliant review, so honest. I agree with you that the ending was poor. Will and Lyra just went back to the way they were in their own worlds. Nothing changed. This infuriated me. That said, I loved the whole ‘killing God’ concept but felt it could of done with a bit of balance, a redeeming person of the cloth could have given it a nice balance. He raised very good points about the church I must say though!

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