Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Laurel-Leaf Books
Publishing Date: 2000
Number of Pages: 465
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, High Fantasy Fiction, Scientific Fiction
Lyra and Will, two ordinary children on an extraordinary and otherworldly quest, have fallen into unspeakable danger. With help from the armored bear Iorek Byrnison and two tiny Gallivespian spies, they must enter a gray-lit world where no living soul has ever gone. All the while, Dr. Mary Malone builds a magnificent amber spyglass. An assassin hunts her down. And Lord Asriel, with troops of shining angels, fights his mighty rebellion. As war rages and Dust drains from the sky, the fate of the living – and the dead – finally comes to depend on two children and the simple truth of one simple story.
Initially, I was shell shocked but eventually I came to appreciate Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first volume in the prolific author’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. He magically wove a world that is both believable and fascinating. He conjured interesting characters revolving around an out-of-this world plot (literally). It was a pulsating and riveting read to say the least. This made me turn the pages of the second volume to the trilogy, The Subtle Knife.
The second volume confounded me as everything that Pullman built in the first book was burned to the ground and an altogether different storyline started to take form; the story became murkier as I turned one page after another. But I ignored all of these flaws as I was hoping that the last volume in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, will provide me some clarity. I was hoping for the last book to at least tie up all the loose ends. Unfortunately, you don’t always get it your way.
“I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are.” ~ Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass
In the first volume, we were introduced to Lyra while in the second volume, Will took the scene. In the third volume, both Lyra and Will embark on a journey to save the different worlds. As they endeavor to bring and maintain the elusive peace, both encounters challenges, including but not limited to Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coultier, that will stymie their progress. As a religious revolt is brewing above the heavens, Lyra and Will’s conquest becomes more treacherous. What is this “Dust”? How will the trilogy conclude?
In The Amber Spyglass, a lot of things have begun to clear up as the fogs that was unsettled during the second volume started to settle down. But then again, just like what Pullman did in The Subtle Knife, he started taking on a different and perplexing path. However, if there is one thing that is palpable all through this odd curve balls is his overwhelming criticism of the composition of the Church (represented by the Magisterium). It is here that all those anti-theological facets become clearer; well clearer, and murkier as well. The angels and “God” were not spared in this literary critique.
In fairness to Pullman, his take on this “anti-theological” subjects is not, for me, a direct attack on religion. In the bigger picture, I found this work as a satire of the actions of the Church, mostly the politics involved as the Church tries to protect its personal interests. This kind of microscopic study is something that the Church is not new to; it still remains a very controversial yet powerful institution. What stings in the book, though, is the preachy tone adopted by Pullman in conveying the story, especially in the last volume. Nothing is more off-putting in a story than that type of condescending tone.
“Maybe sometimes we don’t do the right thing because the wrong thing looks more dangerous, and we don’t want to look scared, so we go and do the wrong thing just because it’s dangerous. We’re more concerned with not looking scared than with judging right.” ~ Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass
The Subtle Knife was a laborious read but The Amber Spyglass is even more so. Everybody would expect that the last installment of a trilogy would contain lesser plot twists, but that is not the case here. As I have mentioned, Pullman kept on introducing new elements into the story that constantly makes it perplexing. He even introduced a new world with new creatures that didn’t make the story move forward. This would have not been much of a big deal if all of it were cohesively written. I felt there was a disconnect between and amongst these subjects the book dealt with.
Moreover, Pullman kept introducing new characters. It was a futile exercise to keep the reader hooked into the narrative. Most of these new characters are caricatures and did nothing to make the story move forward. They were there to make it even more confusing. Take for instance, Father Gomez, who was tasked to assassinate another “second stringer” character and was meant to add a layer of suspense into the narrative. His storyline is just one of many layers which could have been removed to make the story more compact.
But if there one failure bigger than the others it would be Lyra and Will’s stymied growth as characters. Lyra exponentially matured in the first volume while Will did in the second volume. Due to the change in focus, the main characters and their growth were put aside so that the commentary on the Church and its failures will keep flowing (at least that is how it felt reading the story). I also didn’t like the fact that Lyra was forced to play second fiddle to Will. All of a sudden, she became servile to all his biding. The interesting, strong-willed Lyra of the first volume is in stark contrast to the docile Lyra of the third volume.
“I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn’t any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.” ~ Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass
I guess my diatribe is more than enough to express my disappointment with the book. Was it a satisfying read? No. There were just too many loose ends. And yes, that conclusion was pretty anti-climactic. Some of the scenes in the story felt too contrived. Mrs. Coulter’s redemption of herself didn’t feel natural at all. I don’t hate the book it is just that it felt too disconnected with what Pullman started in The Golden Compass. I just kept on looking at how it connects with the rest of the trilogy only find out that there is very little.
Concluding Remarks, His Dark Materials Trilogy
I picked Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy out of sheer curiosity. Because I kept encountering the trilogy in must-read challenges, I was so excited that I included it in my August Young Adult Fiction Month. The Golden Compass was a promising start for the Trilogy. Pullman created a fantastic surreal world populated by interesting characters. However, it all started going downhill with The Subtle Knife and ultimately took the plunge in The Amber Spyglass.
It would have all worked out if Pullman stopped piling one layer after another. What I once perceived as an adventure novel ultimately turned into a commentary on the Establishment. It left me confused and perplexed. Although it was a critic on how the Establishment handles itself rather than a direct attack on religion, the last volume’s preachy commentary was just overwhelming; it was a totally odd curveball that hampered my appreciation of the story. It is filled with very dark and complex subject; to think that this trilogy is supposed to be suited for children.
Maybe it is just me but my first experience of Philip Pullman and his works is truly a disappointing endeavor. His Dark Materials Trilogy could have been a great story. It is just that too many facets weren’t working cohesively.
Book (The Amber Spyglass):
Trilogy/Series (His Dark Materials Trilogy):
Recommended for devout fans of Philip Pullman and his works, readers who like stories that come in threes, and readers who got hooked with the first two volumes of the trilogy.
Not recommended for readers who are deeply immersed in the Magisterium and its teachings, readers who are looking for a quick and pleasurable read, and Lyra.
About the Author
To learn about the author of His Dark Materials Trilogy, Philip Pullman, click here.
You might want to read my review of the first and second books in the trilogy. Click on the below links to read my thoughts.
His Dark Materials Book 1: The Golden Compass
His Dark Materials Book 2: The Subtle Knife