Author: Philip Pullman
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: 2000 (read on Audible in Oct. 2019)
I read the first two books in this trilogy about 8 years ago, but never got around to finishing the series. I’ve been wanting to read the Amber Spyglass ever since, but felt I needed to re-read the first two books again since it’s been so long. I don’t regret re-reading the first two, because I enjoyed them a lot more the second time around, particularly The Golden Compass, and I think the full cast audiobooks are wonderful. But after waiting 8 years to read The Amber Spyglass, it was a huge disappointment.
There’s a lot going on in this book. It is significantly longer than its predecessors (at least it’s a lot longer in audio form) and I felt like the plot had no clear direction. The Golden Compass is really an excellent book, with just the right amount of mystery, metaphors about the catholic church, and a feisty main character. The Subtle Knife was not quite as strong, but was still a great exercise in world building. I thought both books were super creative and that the fantastical elements, though seemingly a bit random (talking polar bears, witches, etc), all worked well together.
But wow, The Amber Spyglass just really didn’t work for me. First of all, I feel like it was almost several books in one. When I think back now to the start of the book, I can’t believe that Lyra was unconscious for the entire first section and that those parts were still part of the same book. Pullman goes heavy on the religious symbolism in this book, but somehow it became less obvious to me what his point actually is. He lost the subtlety and I think the story suffered for it. The Golden Compass really made me think critically about the church and it’s roll in government, whereas in this book, there were so many religious references that the themes became confused.
I felt Pullman tried to accomplish a little too much. There’s an entire side story with Mary Malone that I think offers absolutely nothing to the series, as well as side stories with Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel, that while more interesting, still felt a little tangential. We also meet the Galevespians in this book, which again, while interesting, still didn’t really add anything to the story. There are a lot of different mystical beings in this series and instead of introducing more, I would have preferred to spend time learning more about the polar bears or the witches, who aren’t really relevant after the first book. It’s not that I necessarily had a problem with any of these elements, I just felt like they made the story unnecessarily long.
Mostly I just wasn’t sure where Pullman was going with this book. At first I thought we were working towards an epic battle between Lord Asriel and his allies against the angels and the “authority”, but the battle with Metatron ended up feeling more like a bit of a side note than a climax. It felt more tangential than central to the story and made me wonder what the whole point of Lord Asriel even was. On a separate note, I found Mrs. Coulter fascinating and really liked how she had a change of heart in this book, but I found her ending to be anti-climatic and would have preferred to see a reunion between her and Lyra. I thought it would be really interesting to explore whether or not Lyra would be capable of forgiveness and whether Mrs. Coulter was even worthy of it after having committed so many atrocities.
Lyra’s plotline with the World of the Dead was a lot easier to follow along with, but it just dragged on forever with a ton of heavy metaphors that were honestly over my head. I’m pretty well versed in Christian doctrine and scripture and I still wasn’t sure what Pullman was getting at or what his ultimate theme was.
I thought the World of the Dead was going to be a side plot that impacted the eventual main plot, but apparently the World of the Dead was really the whole point of the book. Lyra was meant to open up a permanent way out of the land of the dead to free all the trapped ghosts, but I’m not sure what the land of the dead represented – was it hell? purgatory? – I don’t really know. Pullman had obvious beef with the ‘Authority’, but by the end of the book I wasn’t even really sure who I was supposed to be mad at. Was the ‘Authority’ to blame for trapping all the ghosts in the World of the Dead? Because that doesn’t seem very in line with the Christian doctrine of heaven and hell, so I had a hard time buying into it and I wasn’t really sure what the point was. If anyone has a little more insight, I’d love to know.
In turn, I thought the whole ‘Lyra as Eve’ theme was a little overdone and that the ending with Lyra and Will was the stupidest thing ever. Like, they are 12 years old and suddenly they are passionately in love and kissing constantly, envisioning their life together forever? Give me a break. They are 12! It just felt so cheap to suddenly have these two main character mature so quickly. The reader knows that Lyra and Will are both right on the cusp of puberty and that Dust will soon start to collect around them, but like, please ease us into it a little more.
Then there was the whole thing with the witches and closing all the doors between worlds. It just seemed like too neat and upsetting an ending. Again, I’m not sure what message Pullman was trying to leave me with here, but I didn’t like the way he suddenly just tried to tie up all these loose ends after I invested so much time into reading all the stupid and indulgent drama between the other characters.
Anyways, I could continue griping, but at the end of the day this was just a huge disappointment for me. I feel like Pullman went too big with the last book and was too self-indulgent. He lost his subtlety. I enjoyed thinking critically about his themes in the first book, but here I just felt like he was trying to beat me over the head with every problem he’s ever had with Christianity and it just didn’t make sense. But I’ll end it here because I know this is a beloved series to many and I know the series has a lot of merit beyond my criticisms. I’m probably just not advanced enough to really understand what Pullman was going for with book, so any fans are welcome to take a stab at trying to explain it to me, because I really would like to understand.