The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

#46 in my 2007 book challenge was The Amber Spyglass, the final book of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. The third book felt a bit bloated compared to the first two, and the action slowed in places. But Pullman’s skill at multiple-world building continued as a strength, and the details, of the land of the dead, especially, were very satisfying. The polar bears are back, as are the fascinating daemons, but they’re both given short shrift compared to angels and heaven. The adults switch allegiances so often I lost track–who’s good and who’s bad, now?

Pullman’s narrative became much more anti-religion, as he expounded on in an interview with Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair when TAS was published. Interestingly, though, the absence of religion created voids that Pullman filled in the narrative with very similar things. Religion was a giant mistake, and there was no creator. But Dust was sentient, and had “gifted” humanity with consciousness, so it was a common, creative, animating spirit. The character of Will symbolizes free will, yet so much of the story is driven by fate, related to Lyra by the alethiometer, the witches from prophecies, and Mary Malone by the I Ching. I think Pullman worked hard to have an atheistic fantasy, but the end result was an agnostic one, which is a much richer, more complex result, I thought.

I liked the series a lot; I didn’t love it. Lyra never felt fully realized to me, though Will did. Some aspects of Dust were overexplained, while others were given less time. For example, why did the Dust stop rushing out of the world only because of humans–why hadn’t it done that before with the mulefa? But I was engaged with it from beginning to end, I cared about the characters, though some of them didn’t ring completely true with me, and the plot drew me through. It was fun, it was mostly well-written, and it had some big ideas that are interesting to discuss. It was well worth my time, even if I didn’t connect so completely as to love it.

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