Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review of "The Amber Spyglass" by Phillip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass is the exciting and subversive conclusion to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… trilogy.  Lyra and Will having been turned loose in the multiverse described in Northern Lights (The Golden Compass - US) and The Subtle Knife, the time has come to draw their plight to a close—and does the author ever do it in dramatic, fantastical fashion.  But given the wealth of symbolism and subtle digs at contemporary dogma embedded in the underlying narrative of the trilogy, the conclusion is delivered in anything but standard fantasy style.

Of the three books in the series, The Amber Spyglass is the most jam-packed with story.  The action detailed and steady from the first page onward, the wheels of event and character never cease revolving.  The book opens with Will deciding whether to start a rescue action of Lyra, who was kidnapped by Mrs. Coulture and the golden monkey at the end of The Subtle Knife.  But angels visit and try to convince Will to bring the subtle knife to Lord Asriel instead, joining him in his fight with the Authority.  Only at a temporary loss for direction, Will soon enough makes a choice and is on his way, marching toward an inevitable climax.  Where he goes and who he goes with, not to mention Lyra’s fate, are for the reader to find out.  Suffice to say, it’s not always of this world, sees a major revolution unfolding in ways nobody planned, and has moments of happiness and heartbreak to soften the hardest heart.  

Intentionally, Pullman never condescends to readers’ sensitivities.  At times reading more like dark and gritty sword and sorcery than traditional fantasy, not all fan-favorite characters survive, nor do things tie nicely together at the end of The Amber Spyglass.  This subversion of stereotypes  may occasionally be a little heavy-handed (a facet of the trilogy some readers dislike), but if you’ve made it to the third book and not yet been put off, then the manner in which Pullman closes out Will and Lyra’s story arcs will be a bittersweet but satisfying end.  

Content rich and full, there is more to The Amber Spyglass than atypical storytelling, however.  The religious, social, and coming-of-age themes Pullman hinted at in the opening books are wholly exposed and explained in relatively clear terms in the finale.  The reader needs only to connect the dots of symbolism to arrive at Pullman’s conception of universal spiritualism, perennial knowledge, and of adolescence being a rough and rocky road that must be dealt with realistically.  Practitioners of dogmatic religions will certainly find a lot to take issue with, and are thus warned that if the symbolism went over your head in the first two books, Pullman makes it all the more obvious in the conclusion, probably much to your chagrin.  

Putting aside subject matter for the moment, perhaps the most interesting facet of The Amber Spyglass is the coup de grace of imagination Pullman pulls on the novel.  As if saving his best for last from a visual perspective, the scenes and settings take the reader to new places that will stick in the mind long after they’ve finished.  The showdown with Metatron (a great name, by the way), the Underworld, the fight of the Gallivespians, the world of the wheeled Mulefa (read to find out), and many other moments and places are described in a fashion that brings the world’s visuals fully to the mind’s eye.  Though getting a lot of attention for the subversive elements, Pullman should also be noted as a quality scribe capable of putting on paper the ideas of his imagination in a way many writers of fantasy cannot.  The book is at times truly a visual feast.

In the end, The Amber Spyglass is a fitting conclusion to the His Dark Material… trilogy that satisfies on all fronts.  Not quite matching Northern Lights for the best of the series, it is nevertheless a highly satisfying conclusion.  The caveat to this is: don’t bring any expectations regarding how the plot will play out or in what circumstances the characters will find themselves at the end.  Pullman defies all.  Action at times intense, and at others more symbolic, the tale never stops moving.  Involving every one of the major characters introduced thus far, the stories of Iorek, Scoresby, Serafina, Mary Malone, Mrs. Coulture, Lord Asriel, and of course Will and Lyra, are all resolved, just not always in happily-ever-after fashion.  The story balanced, ‘bittersweet’ would be a better term to describe the feel of the book and series.  Theme more overt, readers can likewise expect answers to all of their questions regarding Dust, the Authority, and the nature of the multiverse.  A great conclusion to an ambitious fantasy series.

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