The Amber Spyglass: Book Review

Every now and then a book or a series of books come along that, when finished, provide such a strong emotional response that I can’t help but feel weary. This feeling is a mix of sorrow, joy, awe, and a few other nuances as well. A friend of mine likes to call this an existential void, and that seems as apt a definition as any.

When I finished the last line of The Dark Tower by Stephen King, I had that feeling. I put the book down and did nothing of value the rest of that day. I was just done.

The Amber Spyglass provided the same effect.

This surprised me because I’ve read the books before, back in 2007, but six years is a long time and I’m not the person I was back in high school. Similarly, Pullman’s Dark Materials isn’t the same series to me as it was then.

When I finished The Dark Tower series, I put the book down and proclaimed, “This is my favorite series of books” and felt completely fine with that statement. And perhaps it’s because I’m still emotionally raw from the ending to The Amber Spyglass, but I’m strongly tempted to put Pullman’s Dark Materials in second place.

And I’ve read a great many novels.

(Would that I could finish this review here and go onto something else, but that would defeat the purpose of this blog, which is to write. I have a good two pages left to go, I think, before I’ve hit my arbitrary quota.)

There is a strong progression in His Dark Materials that is twofold: The books expand outwards in scope, starting with Lyra and the beginning of her adventure in The Golden Compass and branching into a multiverse with a large set of characters. The Amber Spyglass represents the final expansion in this story progression; the focus of the book is everywhere, because so much more is going on. The second progression is the writing style. The Golden Compass is a “children’s book” and a rebuttal to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicle, but The Subtle Knife sees a move away from that, and The Amber Spyglass finishes that move. This isn’t a children’s book, and it stopped being a parallel to Narnia long ago.

This is Literature.

The Subtle Knife ended with a cliffhanger, and The Amber Spyglass continues on right after with Will Parry who has now been separated from Lyra. And the book does a curious thing, for Lyra was the main character in the first book and a main character in the second, but she doesn’t return to the focus of The Amber Spyglass until around page 120. Will is our main focus for the first ¼ of the book, though Pullman takes ample departures from him to focus on others.

I like this. We get first hand experience with members of the Church, with Mary Malone, with Lord Asriel, and with Marisa Coulter (among others). Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter were the antagonists of the previous novels, mostly acting as bad guys with their proper roles to play. Here, they are fleshed out, given real motives and details, and their role to play evolves from black-and-white villain to something much more nuanced. It’s a much needed change, and I’m glad it happens.

Mary Malone becomes a much more important figure as well, and her moments are very enjoyable. She finds a new world, a fourth one, populated by quadrapedal creatures with a diamond-shaped skeletal frame, and their society and world are both very fun and interesting to explore. These moments also add much to the pacing, since Mary’s segments are slower and involve more mystery than the other segments, which are fast paced and more straightforward (though there’s plenty of mystery hidden away in them).

The first two books in His Dark Materials were rather emotional: characters die and the problems Lyra faces are very real and very large; this trend continues here, and there were moments where I could have cried if I had allowed myself to do so. Pullman masterfully handles his level of detail, and though he spends less words and sentences on descriptions than other authors, what he chooses to focus on provides just as much, if not more, of an emotional response because of it. If the devil is in the details, then the devil is very much in this novel.

Pullman continues his dislike towards religion and religious authority here, and he’s just as blunt as he is in the previous books. The first glimpse we get of the Church is a group of priests plotting the death of Lyra and seeking loopholes so her murder can be sinless in the eyes of God. But, Pullman does more with religion here than in the others, giving us an alternate retelling of the first war in Heaven and of the fall of man. I found his use of religious mythology quite enjoyable, and the influences of Paradise Lost are very clear.

I do have a few issues with The Amber Spyglass though. Like the other two before it, this novel is very plot driven, and as Pullman brings everything together, certain moments feel placed instead of organic. There is a certain scene with a bomb that doesn’t really work, even if it does add some extra levels of tension. Likewise, we learn that every faction as an Alethiometer—a symbol reader—which serves as an easy, and perhaps lazy, way to make sure everyone knows what is going on.

The prophecy of Lyra reaches its conclusion here, but it still feels more like a plot element than anything else. It’s used to create agency around Lyra, and though everything fits together—despite the reader never getting the full prophecy—the characters within the book seem to care more about it than the reader or the author. I’ve seen good and bad uses of prophecy in novels, and this one falls somewhere directly in the middle. It just feels very out of the way.

As the plot threads are trimmed and woven together towards the end, there are a few that feel dropped. I wouldn’t say there are any plot holes, but there are moments that feel like plot holes until they are seriously puzzled out, and then one must wonder if excuses are being made instead of plot holes being filled. None of these are prominent though, and as of writing this, I’ve forgotten the little ones that can be handwaved with a simple excuse, but, when it comes to issues of plot, it is better if the author does the handwaving and not the reader.

As to the ending…it is the right one, and I’ll say no more of it.

The Amber Spyglass is an amazing book, and Pullman’s Dark Materials is a breathtaking trilogy. There are a few minor issues I have with each book, but none that ever bring the series down. It’s utterly fantastic and completely worth your attention.


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