Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book #30: 'The Amber Spyglass' by Phillip Pullman

So it ends. Pullman's monumental trilogy comes to a breathless, exhausting, and sometimes underwhelming conclusion with The Amber Spyglass. I'm still a little bit shaken, to be honest.

The first book, The Golden Compass, set up players and locations. Lyra Belacqua sets out to rescue her friend Roger from the evil plans of the Oblation Board--aka The Church. At the end, Lyra discovers that hers is just one of many worlds, and the next book starts up with Lyra entering one of them. In The Subtle Knife, Lyra meets Will Parry, a young boy from our world who wants to find his missing father. With the help of the titular object, they travel through different worlds trying to fulfill the missions they have set for themselves. The Amber Spyglass deals, in essence, with the conclusion to the children's quests. On top of that, the children have to escape capture by one of two opposing forces that are trying to find them, as it is prophesied that the children have vital roles to play in deciding the fate of the worlds. And so, the forces of "good", led by Lord Asriel (Lyra's father and his armies) and their enemies (the Church, and over them the forces of God, or "The Authority") engage in an epic battle for control of the universe while they try to find the children.

Lyra and Will, of course, have their own plans. Lyra, finally growing up and maturing (Pullman skillfully changes Lyra's way of speaking) still needs to fulfill her promise to Roger, and Will still needs to speak to his father. With these simple goals in mind, and while doing everything they can to resolve them, Lyra and Will find themselves in the middle of the great battle, fighting in it without quite knowing they're doing it. All they know is that they must keep their promises and do the right thing.

It's hard (and very unfair) to condense the plot so much, but anything else would take away the surprise and awe that come with that Pullman does in this book. The final book is massive, packed with exciting plot twists and fantastic battles, escapes, near-misses, everything you could ask for in an epic. And then some.

There are some weaknesses, though. I found this to be the most uneven of the three books, and sometimes things get a little too confusing to be completely enjoyable. It takes some work to untangle everything that's happening and being said. And Pullman has been working on so many plots and characters that it's perhaps inevitable that some of them come to rather lackluster conclusions. I felt that some of the big themes that he had been expanding on weren't satisfactorily concluded, and I was left feeling a little bit shortchanged with regards to some of the big mysteries. The introduction of the mulefa, for example, seems completely unnecessary, and I found myself bored to distraction by the scenes dealing with them. There are a few other speed bumps like this, and it's sometimes just irritating to have an exciting battle scene interrupted by a long, misplaced stretch of non-action.

To top it all off, Pullman goes all out with his criticism of religion in this book. It didn't really bother me at all (and I'm not pro or anti religion), but it can get a little heavy-handed at times, with Pullman pushing his point again and again.I found it interesting, but it might turn some people off the trilogy entirely. But as I said in my other reviews, Pullman isn't just screaming anti-religion nonsense; everything he writes fits into the story and has a purpose beyond scandalizing people. He's criticizing dogmatism and fanatics, not just poking at the religious with no larger point in sight.

But these are minor complaints, really. The book is a fitting end to the trilogy, making the whole thing the best fantasy series I've read since Lord of the Rings. Don't dismiss it because it's labeled a 'children's book', as it's the furthest thing from a simple kiddie book imaginable- I actually think adults would enjoy the subtlety of Pullman's prose and themes more than younger readers would. It has everything you could possibly want out of a series, and it's the kind of thing that is appealing to just about every audience (except the freakishly religious, I guess). If you loved Lord of the Rings, if you loved Harry Potter (which really is kiddie literature), this is the perfect combination of both. It's a sophisticated, intelligent series and just ridiculously fun to read. I am in awe at what Pullman has done, and I know I'll definitely be reading this again sometime soon.

***

That's the review, but I still have some questions I want to discuss with people who have read the book. I'll be posting a set of questions in a couple of days, I think. Stay tuned.

2 comments:

Sin said...

hey dude, you've kind of sold me on wanting to read this series. the really cool part is that the audiobook is read by a full cast, so i'm definitely excited to make this my next commuter book.

supergasnojutsu said...

I remember reading these books when I was in Elementary School and Jr. High. I think they had a huge affect on how I thought about religion and fantasy novels and was probably also a reason why I had a hard time seeing the significance of the Harry Potter novels (which I read very late in the game). I remember waiting for the Amber Spyglass to come out and purchasing a copy on the first day. I also remember getting to the end of the trilogy and being absolutely devastated by it. No spoilers but to a 12-year-old kid who mostly stuck to books with happy endings the apropos but ultimately tragic conclusion to the His Dark Materials books was both a revelation and agonizing. I think I spent days trying to figure out why they couldn't have worked things out a different way before deciding what did happen was probably what had to happen.

Such a good series. I'm still upset my sister couldn't get past the drier first bits of the Golden Compass to truly appreciate the series as a whole.