Jamie's Reviews > The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
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's review
May 20, 2008

it was amazing
Recommended for: those with an open mind, lovers of great storytelling
Read in May, 2008

** spoiler alert ** I was surprised in looking over the reviews for the final book of the trilogy--so much disappointment, anger, bitterness! While I don't believe the book is flawless, I felt a lot of reviewers took out their frustrations on Pullman's politics or his decision to twist the happy ending rather than on the storytelling itself. I thought, whatever problems you have with the book, the storytelling, magic, and emotional power of the book were absolutely riveting. I rarely rush through books so quickly, but I would find myself staying up to read "just one more" chapter and move through three or four because I just couldn't put it down. Because I don't really know where to start, I'll just address some of the main problems other people have mentioned.

1) The "there are too many main characters/worlds/ideas" thing. I respectfully disagree; I felt that he expanded on characters we had known previously (particularly Mary Malone, who I really came to love), while simultaneously introducing new, fully-fleshed out characters. I didn't need an entire book devoted to Balthamos or Baruch to understand them, or more exposition on Atal's life before Mary's visit to the mulefa's world. I loved watching the development of Tialys and the Lady Salmakia. Ultimately, I felt he wove these new lives in without ever losing the sense of Lyra and Will--who I think were even more smartly written and complex here than in either of the other two books. I think Pullman was surprisingly deft at weaving everything together while keeping a strong primary focus on Lyra and Will's coming-of-age (and "Fall").

2) Several people think his character choices were mere plot devices or cop-outs. For instance, Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, and their redemption through their love for Lyra and for one another. While I loved Mrs. Coulter as a deliciously cruel villainess, I think his decisions with her character in this were both surprising and wonderfully done. Mrs. Coulter explains it herself--she had saved Lyra twice before in the other books; that she did so again here really wasn't out-of-the-blue in this book, as so many people have said. Her love for Lyra may have seemed out-of-character to some, but for me, it made perfect sense. The thing I loved about Mrs. Coulter most was that I never really knew what she would do next. You come to assume she's going to make ridiculously cruel moves, but even then, what were her motives? Whose side was she on? Would she switch? Her changes and redemption in this, for me, just proved that Mrs. Coulter was the most superbly unpredictable character of the trilogy. I'll concede that Asriel was a bit more surprising to me in a less skillful way, but we did see a bit of a preface to the final scene between him, Coulter, and Metatron (Asriel/Marisa's union) at the end of the first book, when he offered his hand to her to work together. So I felt it still made sense and was really touching, at least for me. Someone mentioned the harpies--I found the whole bit in the Land of the Dead to be incredibly moving and invigorated. That the harpies came around resonated with me--yes, it does seem a bit silly that no one would have thought to tell the harpies stories beforehand, but I think themes of truth and storytelling (and stories as a way towards redemption or creative expression) were finally fulfilled here, after much leading up to them through Lyra.

3) The religious aspect. While I certainly agree with one review that called Pullman out on his inherently pantheistic world, I don't think that should necessarily be considered a flaw, simply because he identifies himself and the trilogy as anti-theistic. There is, of course, some Higher Power in Pullman's world(s)--but that power isn't God, it isn't his high angels, and it isn't the church. That in itself is a bold move for a "children's" author (or most any author) to make. While Dust certainly has some kind of mystical subtext to it, I think his decision to place religion in the hands of the natural universe is beautifully written and thought-out. Sure, they kill God (which has been called blasphemy by some reviewers--why read/review it, if you're going to give it an unwarranted one star on the sole basis of your divergence from his (and the book's) politics?)--but I think Pullman makes quite clear that the greater meaning of the war against God, etc. is that it is rather against the Kingdom of Heaven, which is corrupt and tyrannical, losing the meaning of the supposed "goodness" of religion altogether. I'm an atheist, but just as his rejection of orthodox religion didn't bother me, neither did his inability to fully narrate an atheist storyline/world/whathaveyou. So to bash the book on the basis of disagreeing with the underlying value system seems to me an injustice; it's not a theological polemical or academic essay--it's a book, and a terrific one, in my mind.

Of course, as I said, it's not perfect. The end was a bit disappointing, but for me, again, it made sense. I think I would prefer the realization that adults have to face hardships--like separation, lost-love, recognition of the self in the context of many others--than to have everything tied up in a pretty, romantic package. That Will and Lyra must be separated seems to me the most adult moment of the trilogy; as they move from childish selfishness into the hard realities of adult responsibility and decision-making, they make the hardest decision of their lives, and effectively seal the deal of their Fall from childhood to adulthood. So while it may not be the saccharinely satisfying union of the two in eternal love, it leaves the reader with a sense of loss and nostalgia, which everyone must face as they enter the real world. I would have preferred more of Serrafina Pekkala and Iorek (among a few other favorite characters), and I felt that the Fall itself wasn't as epic as it was built up to be, but I felt really satisfied with the book and the trilogy on the whole. I think it's more disheartening to see so many reviews bashing it for reasons I don't really understand, and many that seem, quite frankly, inessential to the book/trilogy itself. I still highly recommend it to anyone with an open mind and a love of great storytelling.

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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Tanya Not on my part....not really....I just don't think it functions as a complete piece of literature...I don't care what the subject matter is....the characters are underdeveloped, the plot has huge holes in it....and I do think it stems from Pullman's personal agenda to dispoil the idea of religious complacency....his anger gets in the way, unfortunately, and wher the first book in the series, in my opinion a 5 star, begins the hopeful journey that he may actually create for us a world like Narnia or Hogwart's, Pullman stops short of doing just that....it is unfortunate, because I do see the glimmers of brilliance in his work....albeit not complete....

message 2: by Shara (last edited Jul 13, 2009 11:13AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Shara This was a brilliantly written review. You were able to take every negative criticism of this book and poignantly elaborate and effectively argue why they prove to be false. This a beautifully descriptive review that reflects the honesty of Pullman's writing artistically but also critically. Your indepth analysis of the use of various characters was astounding- and your review of the religious component of the book was quite clever- particularly since this seems be what is conjuring the most negativity. I completely agree with your following statment: why read/review it, if you're going to give it an unwarranted one star on the sole basis of your divergence from his (and the book's) politics?)... Love it!

Jamie Shara wrote: "This was a brilliantly written review. You were able to take every negative criticism of this book and poignantly elaborate and effectively argue why they prove to be false. This a beautifully de..."

Thanks for offering your thoughts! I'm actually considering re-reading the trilogy this summer, and now you've reminded me of that goal. Thanks!

Ruby This is a great review... I'm so glad someone out there isn't giving it one star and insulting it in every way. I think this is one of the first five-star ratings I saw. All your reasons make sense, too. It's nice.

Esmeralda I was a bit surprised by the negativity in the reviews, as I personally LOVED this trilogy in general and this book in particular. You explained the main themes very well, it's absolutely what I felt reading it.
I especially loved the part about the non-atheist vision of the world while Pullman is a self-declared atheist. I am myself atheist, and while I sure love visions of a world without preexistent meaning or creator, this is a work of fiction and I had no problem getting behind it.
Your review really cheered me up, I feared I was the only one who had enjoyed this book.
It did left aching for more books, I especially wanted more backstory for Balthamos, as he turned out to be one of my all-time favorite characters, but if I want to stay objective, the book gave a very sufficient ending to this amazing series.

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