Maciek's Reviews > The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
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Jan 10, 2011

did not like it
bookshelves: fantasy, own-in-paperback, owned-books, read-in-2011, reviewed, the-ya-shelf, journeys-and-quests
Recommended for: No one
Read from January 04 to 07, 2011

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

-T.S. Eliot

Warning: Contains spoilers.

The Amber Spyglass is the final volume in His Dark Materials trilogy.

I really enjoyed Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass as it is titled in the US), the first volume of the trilogy. Pullman introducted us to a fantastic world of great scope. It was suspenseful, the presented world was enchanting, and Northern Lights was pregnant with interesting ideas and concepts - that's why I chose to read all three.

The next one, The Subtle Knife was laborious indeed. Most of what made Northern Lights wonderful was dropped - there was no world building in this volume, the characters seemed stalled and the book was a chore. It was a transitional piece so some of these things might be excused, and I approached the final installment expecting a grand payoff.

The Amber Spyglass is no Return of The King. It's the ugly baby that came out of Pullman's imagination and his hatred of religion. The novels is such a tremendous let-down that it's hard to decide where to start a list of its failings.

Lyra, the cocky and bratty protagonist of Northern Lights disappears almost entirely. Lyra from The Amber Spyglass is almost fullly submissive to Will. Oh Will! What shall we do? Will! Oh Will! Where is the girl who rescued children and planned it all on her own? Here Lyra doesn't seem to be able to do anything without depending on Will.

The "redemption" of Mrs. Coulter is totally unconvincing. The Grand Evil Lady (who was so great in Northern Lights!) suddenly out of the blue starts loving Lyra. This is just so ridiculously uncharacteristic and unbelieveable. The great villain is reduced to a mere puppet in Pullman's hands, who seems to have forgotten how to hold the strings.

Not that other characters are handled expertly. Aside from Lyra who was reduced to a dependand sissy and Will, the grand young adult fiction boy-on-a-quest stereotype Pullman introduces more and more characters like the new race of Mulefa, the bug-like creatures. He then goes on a tangent describing their culture, which while interesting doesn't add much to the plot.

The figure of Father Gomez, who is sent by the Church to kill Lyra is just a cheap way of maintaing tension. He never faces his victim and dies from the hand of a character we believed to be dead several hundred pages previously. His sections are nothing but filler.

The theological questions are never developed. Pullman literally stated in the previous volume that "every Church is evil", without showing why. He didn't show how Chuch uses religion to manipulate the consciences of people - we are treated only to Pullman's version of the Church, which is evil because the author told us it's evil. Everyone associated with Church is EVIL at a cartoonish level. Mother Theresa has evaporated from Pullman's cosmos, and took all the good priests along with her.

There's no conflict inside the Magisterium - no good voices are drowned by the bad ones - because everyone is bad. All of these evils are dressed in the not-at-all veiled robes of Christianity, especially the Catholic Church. These evils are never really shown, we're just told they are evil. Oddly, there are no evil Muslim priest or bomb-throwing Buddhist monks. In Pullman's world there is only one religion, and it is THE BAD ONE. As one of the characters says: "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all."
Doesn't sound very convincing.

Curiously, the church seems to have little impact on Lyra's world. Though Pullman wants to lay all of the evil of mankind on Christian religion and God he doesn't bother with providing plenty of evidence. The Church does evil things, but it doesn't get into the way of the Armored Polar Bears who live a godless existence, or the clans of Witches who are into paganism. Neither the Polar Bears nor the Witches seem to be particularly bothered by the Evil church - The Witches seem to love their country, and don't seem to be forced or isolated by the church. They seem to love the north pole where they live.

Now, in a world dominated by an incredibly powerful religious organization which corrupts everything, one would expect that everyone would be forced to follow the enforced religion and actively participate in its rituals - masses, etc. Religion would be a part of the daily life, as vital as a breath when you practice it, and as deadly as lack of it when your faith is not strong.
In Lyra's world, NO ONE prays or goes to any sort of religious service. In a world where religious domination is SAID TO BE thriving, I'd expect it to be obvious. If religion is the source of all the evil in the world I expected it to be omnipresent. But it isn't. Except Pullman said so. So we have to believe him, eh?

Pullman goes on a specific tangent to discuss the very issue of God. God is said not to be the original creator, but the first of the angels to appear. He portras him as some sort of terrorist, who lied about his origins and holds the reins of Heaven in his strong hands. However, it is all told to us; we never see it played out. When God makes an appearance, he is shown to be a demented, old angel which vanishes almost immediately. We are never shown the man behind the curtain, the malevolent presence who is the source of all trouble. We are supposed to accept, that no matter what THIS is TRUE and REAL. Is "God" a sadist? We may never known, we can only accept what Pullman tells us, because he showes his truth down our throats.
The angels are shown as extremely ineffectual. They can't really hurt anything, which makes us think again: How exactly did "God", who is just the first angel, become so powerful? There are many more questions about the angels (how did Baruch and Metatron became angels from men, but no one else did?) but Pullman never bothers with them.

Then there is the separate tangent of dr Mary Mallone, a former nun who rejected the Church and all faith entirely because she ate some marzipan and kissed an Italian. Whoa! Maybe if she ate an Italian and kissed the marzipan I could understand the Church denouncing her (the convent would grow slimmer and slimmer) but it doesn't make much sense. In fact this is some of the poorest reasoning I've read in a while. Can't you believe in God, practive your faith and enjoy the world at the same time? Millions of people do, but Pullman apparently think you can't. I could understand Mary quitting being a nun, even quitting organized religion because of the "imposed" restraints, but stopping believing in God because of marzipan? This is not a strawman argument, it's a marzipanman argument, and unfortunately it ain't sweet.

Mary's story stirs some tension in Will and Lyra, who suddenly realize that they're meant for each other (at age of 12 eternal love is serious business, mind you) and the story morphs into a contrived retelling of The Fall of Man, though I don't understand why Lyra is said to be the next Eve. Of course she finds love (with almost no build up), she gives it up for the sake of the worlds (hers and Will's). I think she resists the temptation to continue their relationship to help everyone build the new Eden, or the Republic of Heaven, but it's a tenuous connection at best. Not to mention that twelve year old children suddenly start talking like certain older men. Blah.

This is getting long, so I'll wrap it up in Pullman fashion. An angel shows up, answers all of the questions and the children return to their separate worlds, promising that they will never forget each other and visit the same place in their worlds to remains as close as possible. In Lyra's world generous foster parents magically turn up, and she sets up to build a godless existence where people could enjoy themselves as if anything was stopping them before. DOH!

I think that these books had great potential. They could show children the dangers of corrupt individuals who use religion to influence and control people. Unfortunately, Pullman took it all away with his absolute lack of polemic and blatant one-sideness and all we got were some puppets running around and spewing his personal sentiments in this incredibly boring and contrived slog. The guy's obviously an imaginative author, but his bigotry got the better of him here and I can only wish that Norhtern Lights was a standalone.

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Comments (showing 1-50 of 80) (80 new)

Scribble Orca I think you've nicely summed up what I thought about this series, although the dogma just got to me at the end and I more or less tuned out from whatever imagination was on display - I really skipped huge chunks of Knife, and only by sheer force of will (which I lack in amazing quantities) did I finish Spyglass.

Maciek Thanks. I see that it's a consensus here that the trilogu got progressively worse. Which is a real shame, because I really enjoyed the first volume.

message 3: by Becky (new)

Becky Great review, Maciek.

Maciek Thank you, Becky. I checked and we seem to have the same sentiments towards this series and this volume in particular.

Bondama Fantastic review... I truly loved the bit about the Italian and the marzipan! -- I knew perfectly well that I let my own beliefs cloud my reaction to this last volume -- but it's really, really important to be able to stand back from something one is determined to like for the wrong reasons -- good work, Mac.

Maciek Thanks. I had high hopes for this trilogy to become a favorite of mine, but this volume practically destroyed any accomplishments of the previous two.

mark monday oh, mace. this review makes me sad. the trilogy just got better & better! this was probably the most powerful YA novel that i've ever read.

Maciek Hi Mark, where you been? And seriously? Marzipan??? You bought that?

mark monday had to take a break from e-world in January, was a busy month and had to focus. but now i am slowly coming back.

on marzipan...well people break faith for all sorts of reasons, some reasons which may be more metaphorical than rational. but i did love your comment "Maybe if she ate an Italian and kissed the marzipan I could understand the Church denouncing her"!

Maciek Good to have you back, man. I cannot agree on this book though. The reasoning behind this ugly religious blabber was so poor that even kids could see through it.
Besides, what's up with Pullman attacking Christian religion? Why he chose the religion whose main credo is "turn the other cheek"? Seriously. The middle ages are long over.

message 11: by mark (last edited Feb 10, 2011 01:53AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday some atheists have very strong, even fierce feelings. they feel as some women feel after recognizing patriarchy and some races feel after recognizing 'white privilege'. i understand their anger as i understand pullman's anger expressed through his series (but mainly through his public comments).

as a God-lover, parts of the trilogy made me sad, other parts were disconcerting (especially in the third book). but as a person aware of political realities, i also understand the disgust some folk have with organized religion in general and in christianity (in particular various media or political figures who place christianity at the forefront of their at-times intolerant agenda).

however i mainly see pullman as a curmudgeon with a heart of gold. yeah, he is the most hardcore athiest in england and yeah the trilogy purporst to be about the death of God. but the pullman i see after i read the trilogy is a very spiritual man, in love with nature, in love with the strength of children, in love with the idea of love. he breaks boundaries, he attacks faith, and yet i feel i see through his bluster to the heart of him: he is a humanist.

Maciek Well, I can't argue with that as I don't know the man. I can certainly relate to your comment about people using Christianity in their own political agenda. BUT these are exceptions, not the majority. Maybe if Pullman chose to abolish ALL religions in his books...but what we got was a poorly reasoned anti-Christian diatribe.

Bondama Mac, I'm ashamed of you ! --- So Christianity "turns the other cheek," does it" --How do you explain George W. Bush and Irag & Afghanistan? Let's be realistic, here, there is NO Christian religion that practice what it preaches, especially here in America!

Maciek That's an awful generalization. I personally know A LOT of people who practice just what I said - both priests and regular peope, who stick to these values for better or worse. It's as if you said that all black people are thieves because one stole a TV in your neighbourhood.

message 15: by Maciek (last edited Feb 10, 2011 05:23AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Maciek Besides, no religious official ordered practicing Christians to kill Pullman because he insulted their religion, right? How's that for turning the other cheek? I say: not too bad. Religious nutheads with scritpure for brains might have boycotted the book, but the rest of the world rightfully labeled it as trash - because that's what it is - and moved on.

Maciek Bondama wrote: " Let's be realistic, here, there is NO Christian religion that practice what it preaches, especially here in America! "

Also, this makes absolutely no sense. How can a religion practice what it preaches? It's a paradox. I can only understand that by religion you meant people who subscribe to that particular code of conduct. Now, a religion can't change because of some latitudes or longitudes - but its practicioners can. Unless you take into account the whole picture, meaning all belivers, all over the world, such statements are preposterous beyond belief and without any value whatsoever.

Bondama Whoa - hold on here - YOU characterized Christianity as the "turn the other check" religion" - not me. Of course they're Christians who practice what is preached - just as there are Moslem, Buddhists, and Wiccans. My quarrel with Pullman was that he, too characterized Christianity as a whole, rather than as a group of individuals, with individual takes on the dogma of their particular religion.

Also -- religion does indeed change according to latitude and longitude. I realize you've never had an opportunity to see a Mass in Mexico, where the devotees crawl on their knees to approach the Altar.. but I'd be willing to be that's not a part of the Mass in Warsaw.

Bondama Also --Il Papa may not have instructed his fanatics to kill Pullman because of his beliefs, but he did indeed instruct "any good Catholic" to boycott the movie and the book.

Also... ever hear of the Spanish Inquisition? Or the Conquistadores in North America? There's a lot of dead Indians who might disagree with your "turn the other cheek" philosophy

message 19: by Maciek (last edited Feb 10, 2011 06:17AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Maciek Bondama wrote: "Also -- religion does indeed change according to latitude and longitude. I realize you've never had an opportunity to see a Mass in Mexico, where the devotees crawl on their knees to approach the Altar.. but I'd be willing to be that's not a part of the Mass in Warsaw. "

Don't get me wrong, but - does that insult you in any way? Or do they force you to crawl to the altar with them? I don't see any problem with people practicing their religion as they wish - as long as they don't force me to adapt to their religion/their methods.

Bondama wrote: "Also --Il Papa may not have instructed his fanatics to kill Pullman because of his beliefs, but he did indeed instruct "any good Catholic" to boycott the movie and the book.

How's that for turning the other cheek? Instead of exposing Pullman like I did he simply asked people to ignore him - like the typical nasty kid in class, who insults everybody without any particular reason. The book was not withdrawn from all stores, and people were free to read it - it's just that their expectations of a serious polemic might not be met. Marzipan indeed.

Bondama wrote: "Also... ever hear of the Spanish Inquisition? Or the Conquistadores in North America? There's a lot of dead Indians who might disagree with your "turn the other cheek" philosophy

Of course I heard, and in no way I'm excusing these crimes. But, asI said, it's the people who abused the religion for their personal purposes, not the religion itself that's guilty, as Pullman might led you to believe. Too bad these dead Indians can't see the world now - would they be surprised!

Besides, as I said, middle ages are long over, and bringing up the Inquisition or the Conquistadores is nothing spectacular. Does the Inquisition work now? We might as well drop some bombs on the Germans because they started a war some years ago, and I expect all Black people in America to hate all whites because they enslaved their grandparents. Hide your kids, hide your wife!

Bondama sigh..... does ANYONE ever just .... discuss something with you, Mac? The reason I mentioned the Conquistadores and the Inquisition is because these actions did not strike me in any way as "turning the other cheek."

I don't understand your references to the dead Indians... are you implying that they would actually LIKE what's been done to their Mother Earth? Where I grew up, in Isleta, the closet Indian pueblo, when the local Priest paved over the Indians' dance circle, so their feet could no longer touch mother earth, they threw the priest off the pueblo and locked the damn church!!

message 21: by Maciek (last edited Feb 10, 2011 10:14AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Maciek B, I don't think we understand each other. I never tried to justify the actions of Conquiscadores and the Inquisition, because obviously they were abusing their religion for their personal goal. Right? ANY religion can be abused in that way, because any holy text can have multiple interpretations. I chose that of peace...along with countless others.

Mentioning the Inquisition and Conquistadores as a reason for labeling the Christian religion as "bad" is equal to mentioning the Nazis as a reason for hatred of current citizens of Germany and slavery as a reason for interracial hate. There is no denying what happened, it has been condemned and dealt with. Seriously. Do you really think that the Inquisition is still employed by the Catholic Church? Or that the Church sends its warriors to conquer land from the savages? Can people of color perform justified assaults on white people because their ancestors were enslaved and abused by them? Or can white people look down on black people and abuse them because not that long ago they were treated as inferior in every way?

message 22: by Bondama (last edited Feb 10, 2011 12:27PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bondama I'd almost agree with you, Mac, were it not for the current movement in (at least the American Catholic) church of groups like Opus Dei -who are NOT known for their "turn the other cheek" attitude, particularly towards women.

Perhaps it is a gender thing, after all, I don't pretend to know. I just realize that when a pompous bishop represents a church of God that LOVES its' people, really, truly LOVES them - But... if they commit one mortal sin they don't repent of, they'lll burn in hell forever!!!

Bondama Surely, Mac, you've got to realize that there is no anti-Catholic quite so "anti" as one raised in that particular dogma.

Maciek Didn't Opus Dei came under a lot of criticism? And personally the only thing I came in contact with Opus Dei was while reading The Da Vinci Code.Millions of people aren't even aware of its existence because it doesn't affect them in any possible way. Albino killers are, unfortunately, only a work of fiction.

The bishop you mentioned sounds like he escaped from the mentioned middle ages. See, that's the problem with your theory - you put up the worst examples and set them as representative. For every bishop who has scripture for brains there are three that are compassionate and devoted to helping people. Obviously if your friend's kid gets drunk you don't consider the whole family to be hobos, right?

Bondama Fair enough, I can agree with your basic premise; but Mac, just the recent preponderance of priests "coming clean" about their latent (or not so latent) paedophilia has got to tell you something about the Catholic church with its enforced chastity.

Maciek Good everyone in the Catholic church is a paedophile, right? Including the ordinary believers. Hey, I saw a lot of fat and dumb Americans. According to your logic that ought to tell me something about the country, right? No, obviously there can't be normal and educated Americans...really.

Bondama Uncle, I plead Uncle -- (Anytime my passion betrays me into an unsound argument, my "good" points get lost in the morass of cliches) Uncle, Mac.. Uncle!!

Maciek Okay, this has gone far enough.

Sicarius Noctis "...a mere pupper in Pullman's strings"?

Maciek LOL. A typo. I meant "puppet".

Danielle I agree with what you said in your review. Well done.

Maciek Thanks, Danielle. I really liked the first two books and the whole concept, but didn't like this one at all.

Danielle Yea, the first one was awesome, but it did start going a little downhill after that.

message 34: by Alia (new) - rated it 1 star

Alia I can't like this review enough - it covers EVERYTHING I feel about the series. First book was so awesome, I can't believe how fast it all went downhill. Thank you!

Maciek Thanks, Alia! Yes, it started out as a great series, but the final volume was disappointing and unfocused.

Aloha Wow! What a comprehensive review, Maciek.

Maciek Thank you!

Madeleine - Tei Nice review. I personally thought the last book to be absolutely heartbreaking. I was so ready for that 'great book' that was AMAZING to show itself. All I got was some droning rant from an old imaginative badger.

Maciek Thank you! I know the feeling. I really liked the first book in this trilogy, but the second one and particularly the third were disappointments. I might have been too harsh, as I agree with the author on a number of levels, but for me this book failed to deliver.

Madeleine - Tei Maciek wrote: "Thank you! I know the feeling. I really liked the first book in this trilogy, but the second one and particularly the third were disappointments. I might have been too harsh, as I agree with the au..."


Arielle Walker Oh I definately agree with you on this book! The story had so much room for potential, especially as the first was so good but not only was the story not developed well but i found it just became boring! the only parts I really enjoyed were the segments on the mulefa, though I didn't see the point of them in the overall story

Maciek I agree, Arielle. I might have been too harsh on this novel, but I think it is a definite definite step down from the wonderful first book. Might read it again at some point and see if I like it more.

Chris Sums up exactly how I felt about this book. All this build up of this villainous church with an oppressive, usurper of a God and everything winds up falling flat and concludes way too fast. Such a let down.

message 44: by Diamond (new)

Diamond Ah that sucks. I was looking forward to reading it. I grabbed a copy for 50 cents and I haven't read Pullman in years. I remember loving the Sally Lockhart trilogy (tiger in the well) and I believe I read Golden Compass...perhaps I should re read Golden Compass and then the second one before diving into this one?

Maciek Diamond, you definitely need to read The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it's known in the EU) and the Subtle Knife before reading this one - it's a conclusion to the trilogy and depends on your knowledge of two previous books. I felt that it was a disappointng conclusion - like Chris wrote in the comment above everything winds up falling flat. There are moments of beauty in the book, but I was disappointed when I read it - perhaps I was too harsh and now would enjoy it more? My expectations were high. Definitely read this trilogy - I would like to know what you think! :)

message 46: by Elora (new) - added it

Elora Good book but don't really like philp Pullmans books

Andrew Sadly, spot on.

Maciek Thanks, Andrew! Sad indeed. In retrospection I might have been too harsh on the book, but my disappointment still stands - the very end is beautiful, but the rest is a mess.

message 49: by Katie (new) - rated it 1 star

Katie You were not too harsh. This trilogy is definitely not worth the time it takes to slog through to the finish. As for your review, I wish I had read it at the start of my spring break rather than at the end, so I could have chosen a study-relief series more wisely. So disappointing.

Maciek Thank you, Katie! I really enjoyed the first installment and the ideas of the series, but was disappointed by the way it went. The second installment was dragging, and this one was a mess. The first is v.good and I have fond memories of reading it.

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